Filmed pre-pandemic and released in (what one can only hope is) the nadir of this unending scourge, Pretend It’s a City feels like a gift from the universe — a small, affectionate token that a lover might drop in the mail while traveling the world just to remind you that she’ll be back, and that she’s worth the wait.
I’m pretty sure, though, that’s not how Netflix is viewing it. They’re just checking boxes: new docuseries for the second week of January, check; next installment in our Marty Scorsese deal, check; something to keep people from sampling HBO Max, check. I remember at the start of the pandemic, when production screeched to a halt on everything from trashy reality shows to Scorsese’s $200 million film, a reporter called up all the big network and studio executives and asked how much new content they had in the hopper. That is, how much they had before they'd have to go out and buy some medical dramas set in Toronto. Netflix executives said that they were good for months and months. Sure enough, one pre-pandemic show after another has been rolling out of the Netflix showroom, and this week’s model is Pretend It’s a City, a romp through the mind of raconteur and quintessential New Yorker Fran Lebowitz.
Even if you vaguely recall Lebowitz from ancient history — that is, everything before March of 2020 — a brief refresher helps. In the 1970s, when New York was the crime-ridden, filthy razor blade of popular culture, 19-year-old Francie Lebowitz arrived from Morristown, New Jersey, and got a gig writing for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. She quickly positioned herself as a dandy, more sardonic than Tom Wolfe — who would never have been caught dead in the clubs that Lebowitz haunted — but equally committed to projecting an old-timey writerly aesthetic that is revered because everyone assumes that it’s disappearing, like so much New York ephemera.
Lebowitz in particular would seem to be on borrowed time, since she loves smoking and bad food and parties. There are lots of things she doesn’t like, although compared to the current tone of social-media outrage she comes off like a pussycat. In Pretend It’s a City, Lebowitz describes calling up one author friend and “yelling” at him for blurbing a book that turned out to be a huge waste of her time. I’m sure she did yell at him, but she makes it sound like getting that call would be kind of a hoot. Still, her pose has held up surprisingly well over five decades, even as New York City has mutated into the shiny corporate media town that would likely have never interested a teenage Fran Lebowitz.
In 1978 her magazine columns were compiled into a book called Metropolitan Life that became a huge bestseller. That resulted in a followup collection and a contract to write a great American novel. But Lebowitz discovered that appearing on the Letterman show, doing talks for money and going to parties was easier (and at least as remunerative) as writing that novel, which she still hasn’t done.
“I’m the most outstanding waster of time of my generation,” Lebowitz declared in Public Speaking, a film her longtime friend Scorsese made for HBO in 2010. That documentary was basically a set of clips from live onstage banterfests between Lebowitz and celebrity friends like Alec Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Spike Lee. Many of these clips have found new life in Pretend It’s a City, essentially an updated version of Public Speaking adjusted to the attention span (and bingeing habits) of Netflix viewers.
The show’s title is derived from a common lament that Lebowitz has with the people walking through Manhattan, absorbed in their phones, paying no mind to oncoming pedestrians or anything else outside their moving bubble. “Pretend it’s a city” is her mocking reproof to such clueless narcissists to look up once in a while, although in early 2021 it is also a poignant thought experiment — pretend there’s a city called New York where the people are crowding the sidewalks instead of huddling in their apartments.
Pretend It’s a City is a stylish tapestry of clips from Lebowitz’s public appearances over the years and new footage of her holding forth with Scorsese (who is laughing and chuckling in the background continuously) and the show’s co-producer Ted Griffin, who also rewrote portions of The Wolf of Wall Street, the 2013 Scorsese film where Lebowitz had a small role as, what else, a judge.
Each episode of Pretend It’s a City has a theme tied to some aspect of Lebowitz’s aesthetic, such as the joy of reading and the importance of talent. Throughout there are LOL observations about her fellow New Yorkers, whom she has been watching like a hawk all of her adult life, on the subway, in restaurants, and on the streets, which is the only place (other than her apartment with 11,000 books in it) where she is allowed to smoke.
Scorsese adds some fine touches. In episode two, Lebowitz observes that musicians are the most beloved artists “because they give (people) the ability to express their emotions and their memories.” To accompany this bit of profundity, Scorsese pulls a clip from R. OIivier’s unheralded film Remembering Marvin Gaye, in which Gaye is reclining on a couch in a recording studio, laying down some killer tracks to his 1976 album I Want You. It’s a sweet moment you’re likely to forget a few minutes later as Lebowitz hilariously describes what it’s like to be chased down Seventh Avenue by an angry Charles Mingus.
For weeks after 9/11, wrote Frank Rich, “New York was still tossing and turning under its blanket of grief,” and then Gilbert Gottfried struck. At a Friars Club roast for Hugh Hefner, Gottfried delivered the most over-the-top version of the most over-the-top dirty joke ever told, the one about “The Aristocrats.” The audience was stunned, some were appalled, but as Rich noted, the joke “served as shock therapy, harmless shock therapy for an adult audience, that at least temporarily relieved us of our burdens and jolted us back into the land of the living again.” Nothing Fran Lebowitz says in Pretend It’s a City is going to shock or outrage anyone, but watching it I felt a strange permission to imagine life returning to normal, as I know it will sometime this year. In my mind, I pretend I’m in New York, and I’m walking up Sixth Avenue, and by chance I look up from my phone — and there’s Fran Lebowitz walking the other way, judging me.
Pretend It’s a City drops on Netflix January 8th.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.