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Apple TV+'s Bumbling City on Fire Adaptation Leaves No Room for Nuance

Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage reduce Garth Risk Hallberg's acclaimed book to a painfully trite limited series.
  • Wyatt Oleff and Chase Sui Wonders in City on Fire (Photo: Apple)
    Wyatt Oleff and Chase Sui Wonders in City on Fire (Photo: Apple)

    Halfway through City on Fire, William Hamilton Sweeney (Nico Tortorella), the artistic, anti-capitalist heir to a New York real estate empire, makes a dramatic proclamation. "I don't give a sh*t about this business. I never have. I never will," he tells his step-uncle, so-called "Demon Brother" Amory Gould (John Cameron Mitchell). "I am here to solve a mystery."

    The encounter is one of many clumsy moments in Apple's adaptation of Garth Risk Hallberg's novel, which was widely hailed as one of the best books of 2015 and debuted at #5 on The New York Times Bestseller list. While Hallberg's 900-page tome offered a sprawling look at 1970s New York and the people — of various races, socioeconomic status, and political bents — affected by a single tragedy, creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (Gossip Girl, The O.C.) struggle to bring the subtleties of his work to the limited series.

    City on Fire's scattered approach is likely an attempt to reflect the structure of Hallberg's novel, which alternates its point of view as it introduces new characters connected to a shooting on New Year's Eve, 1976. The series shifts the timeline to July 4, 2003, the night NYU freshman Samantha Yeung (Chase Sui Wonders) is shot in the head in Central Park. There are no suspects, but as detectives launch an investigation, they discover Sam is the link among an anarchist group in the downtown music scene, the Hamilton Sweeney family business, and a series of mysterious fires in the Bronx.

    Across eight episodes, Schwartz and Savage attempt to give each of these storylines their due. Despite spending the bulk of the present-day timeline in a coma, Sam is the most fully-shaded character: Wonders plays her as an idealistic dreamer who believes in social justice and equity. This leads her to join the anarchist group, even if she disagrees with the group's methods. (Sam is drawn to the crew because it's connected to her favorite punk band, Ex Nihilo; frontman Nicky Chaos, played by Max Milner, heads up both the band and the anarchists.)

    Sam's confidence and zest for life are so alluring that Charlie (Wyatt Oleff), a younger boy from her Long Island hometown, is spellbound, and they begin a best friendship that Charlie is desperate to turn into something more. After the shooting, Charlie realizes Sam was hiding an entire life from him, but his devotion remains intact. When he sheds his innocence and embeds himself within the anarchist group in hopes of solving the crime, it's exactly the kind of poor decision a lovesick teenager in his shoes might make.

    But the further City on Fire gets from Sam, the more it loses focus. The downtown half of the story rests on the appeal of Nicky Chaos, but he's not nearly as charismatic as the show believes him to be. Viewers are likely to see right through his poetic speeches about why "building a new world requires the destruction of the old one," making it all the more frustrating that his crew — which includes enforcer Sol (Alexander Pineiro), Sol's girlfriend "Sewer Girl" (Alexandra Doke), and lackey DT (Dylan T Jackson) — mindlessly follows along. While Sewer Girl, whose real name is Lorraine, opens up to Charlie about her history and comes to question Nicky's motives, Sol and DT never have a similar opportunity. In fact, DT, one of two Black characters in the show, is hardly ever referred to by name; he's always just hanging around, smiling and nodding along as Nicky lays out their next act of violence. Perhaps if we knew what drew Sol and DT to Nicky — are they true believers? How did they get involved with him? — his power over them would seem more believable, but as written, there's nothing linking them to one another beyond physical proximity.

    Uptown, Mitchell plays Amory with such cartoonish villainy that the answer to the mysteries of who shot Sam and the origin of the fires are practically telegraphed from the premiere. But in case anyone missed the connection between the various elements of the narrative, the characters are all too happy to spell it out, as William does when he confronts Amory in Episode 5, "Brass Tactics." Two episodes later, William and his sister Regan (Jemima Kirke) do it all again as they painstakingly explain Amory's dastardly scheme to their father (Geoff Pierson). The hand-holding is so pronounced it's a marvel no one makes a crack about the linguistic similarity between "Amory" and "amoral."

    Rehashing Amory's sinister plot isn't just tedious — it also means that other storylines, ones meant to flesh out the supporting characters, are either dropped or wrapped up in ways that hardly make sense. William is initially presented as a self-absorbed drug addict who takes advantage of the kindness of his boyfriend, Mercer (Xavier Clyde), but once he's in detective mode, his addiction is forgotten and his relationship with Mercer is suddenly stable and loving. A season-long conflict between Regan and her unfaithful husband Keith (Ashley Zukerman) is similarly tied up in a neat bow, as if all that's happened is just a blip in an otherwise happy marriage.

    City on Fire's interweaving storylines, hastily resolved though they may be, are meant to remind us that we're all part of a larger ecosystem. In New York (or any city, for that matter) what happens in one area reverberates throughout the entire community, whether it's a shooting in the park or a large-scale gentrification project. If recent headlines are any indication, then the world could use a reminder that our actions have consequences, which makes it all the more disappointing that the limited series fails to effectively translate Hallberg's message to the screen.

    The first three episodes of City on Fire premiere Friday, May 12 on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping weekly through June 16. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: City on Fire, Apple TV+, Ashley Zukerman, Chase Sui Wonders, Jemima Kirke, John Cameron Mitchell, Josh Schwartz, Max Milner, Nico Tortorella, Stephanie Savage, Wyatt Oleff