Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, the creators of Apple TV+’s new drama, City on Fire, have applied brutal but almost certainly correct methods to adapting their source material. They have ruthlessly carved out the thriller that was embedded in Garth Risk Hallberg’s self-indulgently baggy 2015 novel of the same name. They have also relocated the action from Christmas 1976 – eve of the New York blackout on 12 July 1977 and the festival of looting and arson that transpired – to 18 months after 9/11, the volatility of the 70s replaced by the jittery aftermath of the terrorist attack. I suspect this is because it is a time that Schwartz and Savage (best known for their work on Gossip Girl and The OC) knew better and felt more comfortable recreating. Or maybe it was cheaper and even Apple TV+ doesn’t have an unlimited budget.
Whatever the reason, it works well as the backdrop to a story that centres round the shooting of a college student in Central Park and gradually opens up to involve disparate characters from a cross-section of New York society. As detectives pursue leads on multiple suspects, it gives us an An Inspector Calls-on-steroids look at the interconnectedness of people and their actions.
The girl in the park is Samantha Yeung (Chase Sui Wonders, modulating brilliantly from manic pixie dream girl in her early scenes into something much more complex), whose home life has fallen apart. Her mother has run off and her Chinese immigrant father has descended into alcoholism as his skills as a fireworks maker have become obsolete in the face of corporate domination of a once-niche industry. She is a photographer and – though it is endangering her prospects as a scholarship student at NYU – a fixture on the underground rock scene. She is the creator of a fanzine for the band Ex Nihilo and all-round cool girl, adored by former fellow high school pupil Charlie (Wyatt Oleff) whom she takes on as “a project”. They spend a charmed few months together before the darkness always nipping round the edges of Sam’s life begins to encroach upon them both.
Uptown, we have the super-rich characters – members of a real estate family who are about to discover that darkness can encroach on them too. Regan (Jemima Kirke, always so good) receives an anonymous note confirming her suspicions that husband Keith (Ashley Zukerman) is having an affair. With whom, I hear you ask, if you have not come across this sort of narrative before. If you have, you know, and so will the detectives soon enough.
Regan’s brother William (Nico Tortorella, best known for his sweet turn in Younger but more than rising to the challenge of a much sadder and more sophisticated part here) is the estranged, heroin-addicted black sheep of the family who used to be the lead singer with Ex Nihilo. Whether they broke up because of his addiction, his rampant narcissism or the band’s propensity to steal equipment from Sam’s dad and set fire to derelict properties in downtown Manhattan is not yet clear.
When William’s secret and spectacularly patient boyfriend, Mercer Goodman (Xavier Clyde), makes contact with Regan and, on the night of her family’s great party, becomes a witness and potential suspect in Sam’s shooting (not helped by the half gram of heroin that falls out of the jacket he borrowed from William when he places it over her), the narratives begin to entwine. There are further complications to come, involving Regan’s father – who is about to be arrested for wire fraud – and the man unfondly known as his “Demon Brother”, Regan’s uncle Amory (John Cameron Mitchell with an apparently effortless portrayal of creeping malignity).
City on Fire is overall a quality product from Apple’s reliable conveyor belt. Perhaps as a hangover from the showrunners’ background in teen drama, there is too much time spent mooning over Sam and Charlie’s relationship. It seems to have escaped the writers’ notice that semi-platonic-love’s-young-dream is markedly less exciting than an arsonist band or an Upper East Side family imploding or a murder investigation.
The script is variable. Yes, you have wistful voiceovers from Charlie during Sam’s MPDG phase, as she introduces him to vinyl records and vintage clothes, telling us things like: “It was physically impossible to be sad when she was around.” But you also have bitter, fiery speeches from Regan when she finds out about Keith’s affair; superbly wounding insults flowing out of Amory; and much else to savour, on top of a solid plot and great performances from everyone involved in creating this panoramic view of New York and the possibilities it – which is to say the world, with all its innocent teens, traitors, nihilists, narcissists and malevolent uncles – holds for good and evil.
• City on Fire is available on Apple TV+.