Airdate: Friday, May 12 (Apple TV+)
Cast: Wyatt Oleff, Chase Sui Wonders, Jemima Kirke, Nico Tortorella, Ashley Zukerman, Xavier Clyde, Omid Abtahi, Kathleen Munroe, John Cameron Mitchell
Creators: Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage
At 900+ pages, it’s an unquestionably ambitious first novel, but Hallberg’s distinctive prose feels mostly in service of obfuscation. It’s a book in which all manner of structural and aesthetic trickiness — an occasionally evocative ’70s setting, faux Dickensian sprawl, flashbacks, flash-forwards, digressions in the form of a punk rock ‘zine, and a fireworks-obsessed piece of long-form journalism — offer a distraction from the run-of-the-mill mysteries that make up the core storyline. It’s full of vivid moments but less full of effective twists or compelling characters.
Watching Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage’s Apple TV+ adaptation of City on Fire, which arrives with no particular hype, it isn’t always clear what connection it even has to the book in the first place.
With an eight-episode length that’s either way too long or way too short, City on Fire has done away with almost everything that was distinctive about the book. The ’70s setting is gone, replaced by a lackluster shift to 2003. The flashbacks are limited and rarely informative, and the stylistic detours are almost entirely gone. All that remains is Hallenberg’s main mystery, told in a primarily linear form that focuses on the storytelling but doesn’t make it more engaging.
There are reasons to watch City on Fire: The ensemble is good, the New York City settings authentic and the soundtrack on the level you’d expect from Schwartz and Savage. But those aspects fizzle entirely in an exposition-dominated homestretch culminating in a series of contrivances that are too ludicrous to be resonant.
The series, written in its entirety by Schwartz and Savage, begins on July 4, 2003. Chase Sui Wonders’ Samantha Yeung is shot in Central Park. Her body — she spends most of the series in a coma, but not dead — is discovered by Xavier Clyde’s Mercer, who was abruptly leaving a posh party that he wasn’t exactly invited.
Mercer becomes a suspect when police find heroin in the dinner jacket that belongs to his artist boyfriend, William (Nico Tortorella). The arrival of the police is witnessed by Charlie (Wyatt Oleff), a Long Island teen in unrequited love with Sam who actually came into the city to join her at a reunion concert for the influential punk band formerly fronted by, yes, Mercer’s boyfriend William.
The plot, which is very convoluted in a very limited circle, also involves William’s sister Regan (Jemima Kirke) and her estranged husband Keith (Ashley Zukerman); William and Regan’s real estate mogul father Bill (Geoff Pierson); and their scheming step-uncle Amory (John Cameron Mitchell). All come off as refugees from a discarded Gossip Girl subplot. And then there are the anti-gentrification anarchists who Sam used to hang out with in the city, including charismatic Nicky Chaos (Max Milner), hulking Sol Grungy (Alexander Pineiro), and languid Sewer Girl (Alexandra Doke), who all may be working on something bigger and deadlier than just passing out leaflets in the streets.
The case or cases are being investigated by a pair of personality-free detectives (Omid Abtahi’s Parsa and Kathleen Munroe’s McFadden), who have one trait apiece: He walks with a limp and she’s the only person in the show who talks with an exaggerated New York accent.
For its most successful stretch, which is probably the first two or three episodes, City on Fire is one of those stories in which the real mystery is Sam herself. Yes, that means that it’s basically Looking for Alaska, the John Green novel that Schwartz adapted for Hulu, in which the nerdy boy tries to solve the riddle of the manic pixie dream girl who enabled his maturation before meeting a dark fate because she had no autonomy of her own. Heck, City on Fire goes so far as to create a plotline in which Sam has been including coded messages in her books, which is straight out of Green’s Paper Towns.
Oleff and Wonders, both straight out of the Schwartz casting playbook, are likable leads of a very familiar type. She’s convincing as the cool girl who knows the music that will change your life and he’s convincing as the wallflower who, if he would cut his hair, just might have perfect bone structure. The series is so much more confident being a not-all-that-funny, not-all-that-romantic rom-com that the intrusion of the “Who Shot Sam?” mystery is jarring any time it becomes central.
Then the last three episodes suddenly realize that this is not an ongoing series and stuff that even the show doesn’t care about has to be resolved. It becomes one speech after another of people explaining what’s been happening, even if nothing we’ve seen gives them the foundation or justification for their discoveries.
The desperation is so obvious that William, a character with nary a trace of investigative curiosity on the page, absorbs the book’s crusading journalist character entirely and becomes a junkie detective helping the police for absolutely no reason. The result is actually fairly funny, and I think that’s how Tortorella is playing it, but it’s definitely not a thing you can take seriously.
So Richard, the journalist from the book, is gone and so is his essay on Sam, her father, and his fireworks business, something that obviously interested Hallberg. That’s not a big loss. The elimination of 90 percent of the backstory flashbacks from the book just eliminates character depth, so that there’s one point in the eighth episode when Keith just tells everybody his full backstory and nobody seems to care, because why would they? The poignancy of Regan and William’s stories, Charlie’s exploration of religion, and the fairly dumb ideology of the anarchists? All gone, only missed insofar as none of the characters feel like real people anymore.
A bigger loss is Sam’s ‘zine, a spirited deviation of style on the page. Here, in the fourth episode, there’s a two-minute animated sequence that captures some of the flavor of the ‘zine and I was really excited that the show was about to let loose. Then, other than a five-second animated hiccup in a later episode, it never returns.
Take that stuff away and there’s nothing that stands out visually in City on Fire across its full run, though the directors — Jesse Peretz for the first and last two and Haifaa al-Mansour and Liz Garbus for the middle episodes — cover a lot of terrain in New York City. Though I hate the cliché, the city is as much a character as any of the humans in the series. Does it feel like 2003 other than all the characters using flip phones? Nah.
In the book, I often forgot that the ’70s setting was a thing, but the combination of the city on the verge of bankruptcy, the burgeoning underground music scene, and the 1977 blackout made for an interesting backdrop.
The series struggles to connect to anything related to the 2003 setting. The link to 9/11 is used exploitatively in the first and last episodes and forgotten in between (though having Bupkis co-star Wonders playing the love interest for two different lanky man-children who lost their dads in 9/11 in consecutive weeks is a bit funny). The nods to the 2003 music scene and to the early fomenting of what became Occupy Wall Street are lip-service.
And while you can imagine Schwartz and Savage’s excitement in realizing that there was a blackout in NYC in 2003, the difference between an epic night of fires, arrests, and simmering tensions (1977) and a late-afternoon inconvenience (2003) is colossal. The blackout produces the spine of the book; in the show, it’s a 20-minute sequence that slightly interrupts the exposition, but there’s no bravura set piece to be found.
I’ve already praised Oleff, Wonders, and Tortorella and, really, given what they have to play, most of the rest of the cast is fine as well. Kirke and Zukerman bicker believably and if you pretend that Regan is just her Girls character grown up, Kirke has something resembling a real arc.
Milner has a great mustache and enough presence that you can understand why people would follow him. Mitchell is amusingly arch and unsubtle; when you’re playing a character everybody calls “the demon brother,” subtlety isn’t the point. Honestly, the person I ended the show feeling the most compassion for is Sewer Girl, and Doke gives her a sad, dreamy-eyed sincerity.
None of that, mind you, is enough. You can watch City on Fire as a series in less time than it takes to read the book, but I’d probably recommend neither.