By Alison Herman
Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage cemented their place in TV history with a pair of teen soaps that epitomized the aughts. “The O.C.” and the original “Gossip Girl” imprinted on an entire generation, giving millennials a taste for curated soundtracks, pre-recessionary opulence and side-swept bangs. For their latest project, the showrunning duo return to their comfort zone — or rather, contort their source material until it fits their M.O., whether or not it suits the story at hand.
“City on Fire,” an eight-episode limited series on Apple TV+, is adapted from Garth Risk Hallberg’s 2015 novel of the same name. The book, an urban epic that sprawls over 900 pages, traces the fallout from the shooting of an NYU freshman, culminating in New York’s infamous 1977 blackout a few months later. As the title implies, the plot is intimately bound up in a particular time and place. This is the era of “The Bronx Is Burning” and “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” where an arsonist group of Hallberg’s invention could seamlessly blend into a background of civic decline and hostile neglect.
For the show, Schwartz and Savage make the standard adjustments required to squeeze a novel of that size into a season of television. Scenes are condensed; chronology is clarified. But they make one baffling choice that throws the entire enterprise off-balance: switching the setting to 2003. It’s the year of another citywide blackout, so there’s at least some historical basis for the move — but more importantly, 2003 is squarely in the Schwartz and Savage sweet spot. Watching the result, one gets the distinct impression that the fast-forward had more to do with this track record than the best interests of the show. You don’t have to be a fan of the book to tell “City on Fire” has been yanked out of its natural habitat, then thrust into a context where it no longer makes sense.
Before Sam, the aforementioned college student at the center of the book’s mystery, encounters her assailant, she exists at the intersection of several disparate worlds. She’s from Long Island, where her high school classmate Charlie (Wyatt Oleff) still pines for her with puppyish affection. She’s fallen in with the arson crew, all members of the downtown music scene she obsessively photographs on film. And through an extramarital affair, she’s also connected to the Hamilton Sweeneys, a real estate dynasty based uptown. Because “City on Fire” is an everything-is-connected kind of story, these social sets turn out to be even more deeply entwined than they first appear: William (Nico Tortorella), the former frontman of Sam’s since-disbanded favorite band, is a Hamilton Sweeney himself, and his boyfriend Mercer (Xavier Clyde) teaches at a school where William’s sister Regan (Jemima Kirke) is a parent.
The 2003 of it all has the effect of highlighting how much Sam adheres to one of that cultural moment’s ugliest tropes: the manic pixie dream girl. As we learn the incredible amount of illicit activity Sam managed to fit in between classes, she has shades of Laura Palmer, the iconic victim in “Twin Peaks.” That show premiered in 1989, but by introducing us to Sam through Charlie, who lost his father on 9/11, “City on Fire” portrays her as a way for Charlie, a grieving teen, to reconnect with his joie de vivre. Like Sam’s obsession with vintage art forms that signify her authenticity — LPs, film cameras, zines, and other artifacts of the character’s 1970s-inspired origins, lazily left intact — it’s textbook MPDG. This is canonically a year before “Garden State,” so technically the show is ahead of its time.
If nothing else, Schwartz and Savage’s experience ought to help recreate the Manhattan of 20 years ago with molecular precision. But “City on Fire” feels more like it’s stranded between decades than firmly situated in any one. Apart from Charlie’s backstory, the fall of the World Trade Center towers is barely alluded to, let alone explored as a factor in the zeitgeist. The arson plot doesn’t belong in the same show as a prominently displayed “Bloomberg for Mayor” sign. After the law-and-order Giuliani administration, with its emphasis on “broken windows” policing, and before a massive development boom, the idea that there were tons of abandoned buildings for bohemians to squat in or set aflame just doesn’t scan the way it would in an era notorious for structural fires. A half-hearted dialogue among the downtown kids about gentrification has the opposite issue, arriving several years ahead of schedule.
Even non-New York history buffs should be able to tell that something is slightly off with “City on Fire.” Music is another Schwartz and Savage specialty, and the bands coming out of the city at that time — The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and other groups memorialized in the oral-history-turned-documentary “Meet Me in the Bathroom” — set the tone for popular culture at large. Yet despite an aural cameo by an unseen Karen O, the musicians in “City on Fire” don’t wear skinny jeans or leather jackets, nor do they have the stripped-down, cooler-than-thou sound that defined their real-life peers. Figures like Nicky Chaos (Max Milner), the ringleader of the arson group, are essentially punks, three years before CBGB would close and turn into a John Varvatos store. Sam’s favorite item of clothing is a fur-lined jacket she could’ve stolen from Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane, the iconic groupie in the ‘70s-set “Almost Famous.”
Perhaps these critiques read like nitpicks. But in the absence of any standout performances — apart from John Cameron Mitchell, gleefully wicked as Regan and William’s scheming uncle — or much cultivated suspense, “City on Fire” hinges its success on capturing and channeling its inspiration. Instead, the show favors stereotype over specificity. (The two detectives assigned to investigate Sam’s shooting are such broadly drawn cartoons it’s a wonder they don’t say they’re walkin’ here.) “City on Fire” is a much more earnest, less jaded show than “Gossip Girl” or “The O.C.”; its protagonists are still teenagers, but ones who wax rhapsodic about the city they idealize. When their show fails to demonstrate any real understanding of that city, though, the characters are projecting onto an empty slate.
The first three episodes of “City on Fire” premieres on Apple TV+ on May 12, with new episodes airing weekly on Fridays.
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