Read Garth Risk Hallberg City on fire long after the initial publishing hype, it’s not always clear what caused that buzz in the first place.
At over 900 pages, it’s an unquestionably ambitious first novel, but Hallberg’s signature prose feels mostly in the service of clouding. It’s a book that features all sorts of structural and aesthetic gimmicks — an occasionally evocative ’70s setting, faux Dickensian sprawl, flashbacks, flash-forwards, punk rock zine-style digressions, and a firecracker-obsessed piece of long form. journalism – offer a distraction from the mundane mysteries that are at the heart of the story. It’s full of lively moments, but less full of effective twists or compelling characters.
City on fire
It comes down to
Not even the least flammable.
Watch Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage’s Apple TV+ edit City on firewhich arrives without any hype, it’s not always clear what connection it has to the book in the first place.
With an eight-episode length that is either way too long or way too short, City on fire deleted almost everything that characterized the book. The 1970s setting is gone, replaced by a lackluster shift to 2003. The flashbacks are limited and rarely informative, and the stylistic ramblings are almost entirely gone. All that’s left is Hallenberg’s main mystery, told in a mostly linear form that focuses the storytelling, but doesn’t make it any more compelling.
There are reasons to watch City on fire: The ensemble is good, the New York setting authentic and the soundtrack at the level you can expect from Schwartz and Savage. But those aspects are fully effervescent in an exhibition-dominated homestretch that culminates in a series of inventions too ridiculous to resonate.
Written in its entirety by Schwartz and Savage, the series begins July 4, 2003. Chase Sui Wonders’ Samantha Yeung was shot in Central Park. Her body – she spends most of the series in a coma, but not dead – is discovered by Mercer from Xavier Clyde, who abruptly left a fancy party he wasn’t exactly invited to. Mercer becomes a suspect when the police find heroin in the tuxedo jacket of his artist friend William (Nico Tortorella). Charlie (Wyatt Oleff), a Long Island teen with an unrequited crush on Sam, witnesses the arrival of the police and comes to town to join her in a reunion concert of the influential punk band formerly fronted by, yes, Mercer’s friend William. .
The plot, which is very complicated in a very narrow circle, also involves William’s sister Regan (Jemima Kirke) and her estranged husband Keith (Ashley Zukerman); Bill (Geoff Pierson), the father of William and Regan’s real estate mogul; and their scheming step-uncle Amory (John Cameron Mitchell). They all come across as refugees from a discarded country Gossip Girl subplot. Then there are the anti-gentrification anarchists Sam associated with around town, including the charismatic Nicky Chaos (Max Milner), the hulking Sol Grungy (Alexander Pineiro), and the languid Sewer Girl (Alexandra Doke), all of whom may being at work. on something bigger and deadlier than just handing out flyers on the street.
The case or cases are investigated by a pair of personalityless detectives (Omid Abtahi’s Parsa and Kathleen Munroe’s McFadden), each of whom has one trait: he walks with a limp and she is the only person on the show who talks with an exaggerated New York accent.
For his most successful piece, probably the first two or three episodes, City on fire is one of those stories where the real mystery is Sam himself. Yes, that means it is basically Search for Alaska, the John Green novel 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 he met a dark fate for having no autonomy of her own. Damn, City on fire going so far as to create a storyline where Sam has included coded messages in her books, taken directly from Green’s Paper cities.
Oleff and Wonders, both straight out of Schwartz’s casting book, are likeable protagonists of a well-known 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 cut his hair, might just have perfect bone structure. The series is so much more self-assured as a not-so-funny, not-so-romantic rom-com than its intrusion into the “Who Shot Sam?” mystery is shocking when it takes center stage.
Then the last three episodes suddenly realize that this isn’t an ongoing series, and things that even the show doesn’t care about need to be fixed. It becomes one speech after another from people explaining what happened, even though nothing we’ve seen gives them the basis or justification for their discoveries. The desperation is so apparent that William, a character with barely a trace of investigative curiosity on the page, fully absorbs the character of the book’s crusading journalist and becomes a junkie detective who helps the police for no reason at all. The result is actually kind of funny, and I think Tortorella plays it that way, but it’s definitely not something you can take seriously.
So Richard, the journalist from the book, is gone, as is his essay about Sam, her father, and his fireworks company, something that clearly 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 a point in the eighth episode where Keith just tells everyone his full backstory and no one seems to care because why would they? The poignancy of Regan and William’s stories, Charlie’s exploration of religion and the anarchists’ rather stupid ideology? All gone, only missed to the extent that none of the characters feel like real people anymore.
A bigger loss is Sams’ zine, a punchy stylistic deviation 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. 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 City on fire over 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 New York City ground. While I hate the cliché, the city is just as much a character as any of the people in the series. Does it feel like 2003, aside from all the characters using flip phones? No.
In the book, I often forgot that the ’70s setting was a thing, but the combination of the city on the verge of bankruptcy, its burgeoning underground music scene, and the blackout of 1977 made for an interesting backdrop.
The series struggles to connect with anything related to the 2003 setting. The link to 9/11 is used exploitatively in the first and last episodes and forgotten in between (although Bupkis co-star Wonders playing the love interest for two different lanky male children who lost their fathers in consecutive weeks in 9/11 is kind of funny). The nods to the 2003 music scene and to the early genesis of what became Occupy Wall Street are lip service. And while you can imagine Schwartz and Savage’s excitement when they realized there was a blackout in NYC in 2003, the difference between an epic night of fires, arrests, and simmering tensions (1977) and an inconvenience in the late afternoon (2003) colossal. The eclipse produces the spine of the book; in the show, it’s a 20-minute sequence that somewhat interrupts the exposition, but there’s no bravura set to be found.
I’ve already praised Oleff, Wonders and Tortorella and seeing what they have to play, the rest of the cast is fine too. Kirke and Zukerman bicker believably and if you pretend Regan is just her Girls character mature, Kirke has something similar to a real bow. Milner has a great mustache and enough presence to understand why people would follow him. Mitchell is amusingly arch and unsubtle; when you’re playing a character everyone calls “the demon brother,” it’s not about subtlety. Honestly, the person I ended the show with the most compassion for is Sewer Girl, and Doke gives her a sad, dreamy 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 probably wouldn’t recommend either.