Apple TV+’s City on Fire Is an Absolute MessPhoto Courtesy of Apple TV+ TV Reviews City on Fire
On the low shelf below my living room television, I own a copy of Gareth Risk Hallberg’s 2015 novel City on Fire, a book so thick it inevitably draws my eye when I’m on the sofa, and I spend a moment or two thinking about actually reading it. I haven’t yet, and I only bought it in my middle-age mostly-nonfiction epoch because I remembered that the author had somehow secured a $2 million book deal and that for a second-time novelist whose first book created few waves, this was a big deal. Once it came out, though, it seemed like I never heard another thing about it, and it has sat there unread on my shelf ever since (which might be more of a commentary on me and perhaps how disconnected I am from the zeitgeist than about Hallberg or the book or anything else).
When it became clear than an Apple TV+ adaptation was in the works, I at least roused myself enough to read a bit more about the book’s reception—Stephen King loved it, so did Michiko Kakutani, others did not—and Hallberg himself, who lives in New York City and hasn’t yet written a third novel. Armed with that paltry knowledge, I watched the first episode, mostly disliked it, and arrived at an analogy which (for all I know) might be desperately strained and might not be the least bit fair. So, ahem:
Just as the book came out with incredible fanfare and then disappeared with shocking rapidity from the broader cultural conversation, so the show promises high-octane human drama and, within minutes, collapses in on itself and leaves us with a product that tries extremely hard not to be boring in the most boring way possible.
Full disclosure: I couldn’t stomach a second episode; say what you will about my lack of critical professionalism on that front. If this turns out to be a classic, you can screencap portions of this review and harass me on Twitter for decades; I’ll own it. It might be unfair, because I’ve watched more episodes of worse TV. The problem is that City on Fire very much enters my Garden State zone of loathing, where there’s clearly an artistic and cultural awareness at play, the creators have a sense of which levers to pull at which times, but there’s no actual artistry at the bottom of the barrel, leaving you with a very paint-by-numbers aftertaste and the sense that if if you told ChatGPT to create an insufferable teen drama set in New York City with a hint of the ole prestige, this is what it might churn out.
Here’s the deal: A bunch of no-good punk kids are setting fires all around the city, but it’s for intellectual aesthetic reasons, or something. A manic pixie dream girl takes photographs of everyone and everything, a troubled youth who goes to therapy in the city finds himself in the center of an underground social scene—largely because literally everyone he meets decides he needs to be taken under their wing, often after little more than a glance—everyone is kind of horrible, and at the end someone dies. I can’t tell if this is authentically post-9/11 New York or not (I lived there from 2005-2009, and this is certainly not how they behaved in the midtown Au Bon Pain where I bought cookies on lunch break from my desk job at a medical center), but it feels inauthentic. It might also be worth noting that this marks a change from the book, which is set in the ’70s, and to hear people talk about ‘zines and the punk scene in the 2000s is weird and off-putting, and introduces a good deal of chronological confusion.
The acting is abysmal and cliched, but I don’t want to pick on anyone individually because the writing is so bad that I’m not sure they had a chance. (I’ll say this—there are two gay characters who are played so broadly and with such shallow, shorthand signifiers that I would declare it offensive if I weren’t straight and therefore under-qualified to do so.) If you care about any of these characters by the end of the first episode—including the one played by Jemima Kirke, who tries valiantly to pull off a one-woman miracle with her typically excellent performance— you’re a better soul than I.
Apple TV+ has been hitting it out of the park for a few years now, which is why I was actually pretty excited for this one, but if there’s one door they haven’t quite kicked in, it’s in that hour-long prestige drama genre. They want it here, badly, but they don’t have it; HBO would have sniffed this out as trash from the jump. Hell, maybe they did.
The worst part about all this is that for a show based on a novel, the writing is relentlessly awful. Dialogue is reduced to familiar cliches, the plot is nonsensical, the characters are one-dimensional. Beyond Kirke, and a few adult turns by her unfaithful husband (Ashley Zukerman, who plays Nate on Succession), there’s really nothing redeeming here. There’s not even very much that’s human here, and I couldn’t find any heart. All that’s left is something slick, and it’s the kind of glib slickness that makes you more upset, like when a talentless rich kid gets to make a movie and all his friends tell him it’s great. You can hire the best of the best, and you can fool the least discerning, but there’s an enormous chasm where the soul should be.
City on Fire premieres Friday, May 12th on Apple TV+
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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