Apple TV+ Series Fails to Make a Statement

May 11, 2023

When it comes to stories about murder investigations, it’s usually pretty safe to say that you’ll want to stick with the movie or series to find out who’s the killer at the very least. That’s why it’s incredibly frustrating when a story manages to make the investigation the least interesting part. With the Apple TV+ series City on Fire, created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (Gossip Girl, The O.C.), you’d think that this happens because there are more important themes to flesh out, but turns out they’re all just equally uninteresting. Set in 2003, the show, adapted from the novel of the same name by Garth Risk Hallberg, centers around a group of people whose lives get directly or indirectly impacted by a tragedy: a girl who gets shot in Central Park on a Fourth of July night. As the police begin the investigation in order to find out who pulled the trigger, we slowly discover that there’s more involved in the attack than it seems. At the same time, a rebellious group sets fire to abandoned buildings in New York City while planning on hitting a bigger target.

It’s not like City on Fire sets viewers up to worry about who shot Samantha Yeung (Chase Sui Wonders), as the series itself is largely not interested in following that thread. For the first half of the season, the girl’s closest friends make no effort to visit her at the hospital and don’t confront each other about the tragedy – even after one of them is made a prime suspect in the case. Later in the season, it’s revealed there are some reasons for that, but have you ever heard of a group of friends not even caring enough to visit someone who’s been shot and is now recovering in the hospital? If Sam’s closest friends aren’t that interested in her fate, why should we be?

Part of the reason that City on Fire manages to make the investigation uninteresting is that it doesn’t seem to know how to conduct it in the first place. For at least two episodes – which add up to about two hours – there’s only one very obvious suspect for viewers, and a lot of screen time is dedicated to the duo of detectives investigating characters that the audience knows are 100% innocent. Then it gets worse. When the time finally comes to introduce a new suspect, that character is so unbelievably over-the-top evil that they wouldn’t be out of place in a Mexican telenovela. City on Fire also has no idea what to do with its two detectives. Are they real people? Are they plot devices? Are they intelligent? Sometimes they are, sometimes not. At one point, it feels like one screenwriter said “hey, they should have something going on!” and then we get exactly one line that suggests McFadden (Kathleen Munroe) is a lesbian and one scene that shows that Parsa (Omid Abtahi) is trying artificial insemination methods. And that’s it for them. No follow-up. No payoff. We start the series not knowing anything nor caring about them and finish it the same way.

Image via Apple TV+

RELATED: ‘City on Fire’: Cast, Plot, Creative Team, and Everything We Know so Far

With that much disregard for subplots, there would be plenty of time to flesh out the central themes of City on Fire — gentrification, addiction, and post-9/11 America — but those themes are handled either generically or with hardly any nuance. The show makes it clear that addiction to drugs is bad (duh), but never gets down to the nitty-gritty of it — it plays out like a primetime network series approach to the subject. What’s worse, the show suggests that it’s not that hard to kick addiction if you have the willpower and proper motivation.

When it comes to gentrification, it’s spoilery to get into specifics, but the show makes the very questionable decision to show it through the eyes of wealthy characters. The real damage that it does, the insidious ways that the practice is enforced, and the group of people who really have their lives destroyed by it are never shown. In the context of the series, one could be left under the impression that it is a victimless crime and the rich should only get slapped on the wrist for participating in it. City on Fire would have been so much better if it had dedicated time to at least developing the characters who actually have something to say about gentrification, prejudice, and post-9/11 America. Instead, we get a bunch of one-dimensional young adults whose motivations are never clear. They neither share deep bonds nor spend time dissecting their goals, which makes it all the more difficult to believe they’d stick together — especially after discovering some of them have been blindsided.

Image via Apple TV+

Another element that makes City on Fire’s story difficult to buy is that the series is heavily dependent on coincidence to move its plot forward. It’s one thing to have a couple of coincidences happening, but the series uses them in every episode, and Episode 4 in particular is chock-full of them. This hinders not only our involvement but undermines the characters’ intelligence and ability to connect dots — especially the detectives.

Amidst all this chaos, Regan (Jemima Kirke) emerges as the only character whose story is worth the watch — not only because of Kirke’s talent, but also because she has the most going on, and her interactions with half the cast allow us to see the many different sides of her character (wife, mother, businesswoman, supportive sister-in-law). Not surprisingly, City on Fire also fails Regan by revealing crucial information about her past pretty late in the game and then doing nothing about it. It then closes out her arc in a way that feels a lot like a 2003 TV romance would, with misogynistic behavior getting rewarded and a female character having no agency over her own emotions.

City on Fire is a series that seems content to approach deadly serious issues but never does the work of fleshing them out and showing each theme’s nuance, even though the generous eight-hour season provides plenty of time in which to do that. The series knows what it should say and advocate for, but has absolutely no idea how to do it. The worst part is, even at its most basic level, the show is incapable of conveying the gravity of one of its most tragic elements. A young girl getting shot in the head is a terrible, country-stopping event that should make any viewer worry about her fate. Yet, in City on Fire, it feels like the tone of the episodes would be pretty much the same regardless if said girl had been bitten by a dog or fallen down a manhole. In the end, no one really cares.

Rating: D

City on Fire premieres May 12 on Apple TV+.

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