Roush Review: ‘City on Fire’ Fizzles in a Convoluted Slow Burn

Chase Sui Wonders in 'City on Fire'
Apple TV+

City on Fire

Matt's Rating: rating: 2.5 stars

You have to admire Apple’s literary ambitions, tackling giant contemporary tomes like Pachinko (set in Korea and Japan), Shantaram (India) and, closer to home, the new eight-part adaptation of City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg’s sprawling 2015 saga encompassing a panorama of New York City from the downtown club scene to Fifth Avenue penthouses.

What links these disparate worlds is Sam (the luminous Chase Sui Wonders), a punk-rock-loving NYU undergrad whose self-published zine may provide clues about who shot her in uptown Central Park on July 4. As she lies in a coma, Fire unevenly interweaves bomb-throwing hipsters, pretentious bohemian artists and filthy-rich developers facing scandalous ruin. You can see why this source material appealed to Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage of Gossip Girl fame, but the scope proves too daunting a narrative challenge, and they’ve diluted the story’s impact by shifting the time period from gritty 1977 to the post-9/11 metropolis of 2003.

On the page (some 900 of them), Fire was sometimes hard to follow. On screen, it’s harder to care, because almost no one in the talented cast registers as an authentic human being, which makes the many coincidences of the convoluted plot difficult to swallow.

Here’s a mercifully quick rundown of this uneasy hybrid of Jonathan Franzen-style social satire and Dickensian melodrama. Jemima Kirke (Girls) stars as Regan, chilly daughter of a mogul facing prison time, a dilemma for which she blames her smug “demon” step-uncle Amory (John Cameron Mitchell, even more over-the-top than usual). She’s tossed out her cheating husband (Succession‘s Ashley Zukerman) — three guesses who he was cheating with — and she’s also estranged from her druggie-artiste brother William (Younger’s Nico Tortorella), whom the family hasn’t seen in some 15 years. For a hot minute, William was once lead singer of a one-hit-wonder punk band that Sam was obsessed with. The other musicians have now become revolutionaries, torching abandoned buildings to protest gentrification or some such cause.

As luck would have it, Regan’s child is being taught by William’s earnest lover, Mercer (Xavier Clyde), a would-be writer who yearns for William to kick his bad habits and reunite with his wealthy clan. As bad luck would have it, Mercer crashes the family’s swank July 4 party, only to discover Sam’s body across the street and become (though not for long) a suspect. The dual mystery of who shot Sam and why she was so far uptown in the first place keeps getting lost amid the various other plot threads and flashbacks. Only Sam’s smitten best friend, naive teenager Charlie (Wyatt Oleff) from Long Island, escapes caricature as he straddles high and low society seeking answers.

The novel builds to an extended wild climax during the historic and chaotic 1977 blackout. This version leans on a similar though far less resonant incident from August 2003, but sputters when we should be feeling the blaze of narrative urgency.

City on Fire, Limited series premiere (three episodes), Friday, May 12, Apple TV+