AppleTV+’s adaptation of the novel updates the era but fails to wrangle its sprawling narrative.
As an act of nostalgia, City on Fire has plenty to offer anyone who lived or spent lots of time in New York City in the summer of 2003. The new series, created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, evokes the era matter-of-factly. Besides nailing the look of early 21st Century Manhattan, it captures the sense of a city in transition. The groundwork for the gentrification that swept across Manhattan and Brooklyn had just been activated. Mayor Bloomberg was taking what Giuliani had begun and pushing it farther and faster than “America’s Mayor” ever managed. And while the series eventually stomps the theme into the ground, the tendency to wonder if every adverse event was evidence of terrorism was very alive.
In moving Garth Risk Hallberg’s novel from 1977 to 2003, Schwartz and Savage have found a year with surface similarities that breaks down upon a closer look. The blackout of 1977 was more protracted and considerably more dangerous, a match to a powder keg city ready to go to war with itself. By contrast, something more like a collective sigh of relief and frustration met 2003’s blackout. No one was happy with it, to be clear. Still, the realization that it was just bad luck, a random occurrence, seemed to settle people. It was 2001 again. It was just a fucking tree branch.
There are aspects of 2003 that recall the tumult of ’77. The aforementioned escalating economic tensions never burned as hot as the racial ones. Nonetheless, there was a similar sense of the people at the top trying to push out those that offended their sensibilities. Still, without the far more intense feeling of danger inherent to ’77, City on Fire has to work overtime to make NYC seem more on the edge of unraveling than the reality of the time.
To achieve that escalation, Schwartz and Savage recast the revolutionary punks of the novel as something a bit more like a cult. Lead by Nicky (Max Milner, looking too much like Michael Biehn to ignore it), the group is trying to secure New York “for the artists,” but the frontman sure does lace that philosophy with a lot of easily twisted religious language. Then, to really juice the thing, they introduce a puppet master who reads like a Lex Luthor in a world devoid of Superman. This review won’t reveal who this mastermind is for spoiler reasons, but about 98% of the audience will clock the character the moment they open their mouth.
Because of this, the Schwartz/Savage collaboration City on Fire most resembles is the duo’s adaptation of Marvel’s Runaways series. It has the same confused politics regarding whether the rich are uniformly bad or perhaps primarily good, if flawed. It also features similarly rocky group dynamics that feel both intentionally created and the result of undercooked world-building. Finally, it suffers from that series’ mix of rushing into complications that too frequently evaporate once the characters touch it. It’s like plot fog. From a distance, it seems dense. The moment the story wades into them, though, it’s easily moved aside and through.
Even lovers of 2003-era NYC will eventually become too frustrated with the plot to enjoy nostalgia’s sweet kick.
That’s a shame, too, because both visually and performance-wise, City on Fire has much to offer. Samantha (Chase Sui Wonders), the catalyst that sets off the entire story, could easily tumble into cliché. The too-alive but secretly wounded heroine who helps our protagonist find out what it means to live despite meeting with some unfortunate fate herself. Wonders, however, gives Samantha a wild-eyed resolve. She feels steely in places where similar characters frequently flatten to two dimensions.
Charlie (Wyatt Oleff), the closed-down protagonist type, and Mercer (Xavier Clyde), the sensible studious gay man of color, would often end up the wallpaper of a show like this. You know, the characters who exist to react and observe but lack an inner life. However, Oleff and Clyde refuse to settle for that kind of banal placeholder role. Instead, both hold the camera’s gaze and prove they deserve it.
Also worthy of attention is Alexandra Doke, a former child star with her first recurring role since 2010’s Lone Star. As the cruelly nicknamed Sewer, she’s the true believer in Sam’s collection of punk friends. As a result, Sewer takes whatever the men of the group give her. That includes physical attention, demands, terrible nicknames, and calls to violence, for starters. In some ways, she and Oleff evolve on parallel tracks throughout the series. They’re both finding a way to be themselves while taking responsibility for how their “I’m just going along with you all” attitudes made them complicit.
With those kinds of honest coming-of-age challenges, City on Fire could have been an interesting and valid reinterpretation of the source material. A departure certainly, but one with a reason to exist. Instead, the series lards on poor little rich boy artists who love heroin, middle-aged finance guys who can’t help but have sex with college girls, and a sub-Succession powerful family in crisis. The noise-to-signal ratio is a mess, and the series follows suit. Even lovers of 2003-era NYC will eventually become too frustrated with the plot to enjoy nostalgia’s sweet kick.
City on Fire starts chucking pipe bombs May 12 on AppleTV+.