City on Fire review: An engaging mood piece dragged down by a bland plot
The new Apple TV+ drama is bolstered by a strong soundtrack, performances and visuals, but its plot is unfortunately lacking.
Having not read the novel on which Apple TV+ series City on Fire is based, the first episode hits you with a lot of characters and story out of the gate.
It's the sort of information overload which could lead to a real disaster of a series, one which is so busy bombarding you with hundreds of characters and a variety of seemingly disparate plotlines that you're just left exhausted.
Thankfully, that's not the case. City on Fire is not, by any means, a disaster. It's simply another mid-tier Apple show. You know the ones – like WeCrashed, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey or Shining Girls. It's fine to have on in the background, but may not keep your full attention.
The series, which is based on the 2015 novel by Garth Risk Hallberg, stars Wyatt Oleff and Chase Sui Wonders alongside an ensemble cast, and centres on Samantha Yeung, a young woman who is shot in Central Park one night in 2003.
As Sam is left in a coma, it soon becomes clear that she is the one link between the show's various storylines, which centre around a boy named Charlie who lost his father in 911, the downtown music scene, a series of fires being set around the city, and a wealthy uptown real estate family.
After the first episode flits between the stories with abandon, barely leaving a breath other than in the scenes centred around Charlie, later episodes start to see the storylines come together, melded by Samantha's shooting.
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In spending more time with the characters, the impressive work of the cast shines through, with Wonders, The Walking Dead: World Beyond's Nico Tortorella and Succession's Ashley Zuckerman proving particularly engaging, selling their scenes no matter the strength of the material.
The aesthetic of the show is grungey, but thankfully not abrasively so. Set in 2003, the series has a real sense of time and place, particularly as it delves into the underground New York rock scene.
The show could have tried to emulate the aesthetic and come off as irritating or pretentious, but by repeatedly switching its focus between individuals and parts of society, it manages to lean into rock stylings while avoiding this trap.
The show's greatest asset is that it is eminently watchable. The characters are far less grating or wanna-be edgy as they may appear on paper and the visuals are impressive and transportive, particularly when the series occasionally mixes it up with stylistic quirks.
The soundtrack is equally evocative and manages to liven up the tempo when the plot drags, making the whole thing an engaging aesthetic and audio mood piece.
However, the show's greatest weakness is that the central mystery just isn't that engaging. There's no particular tension in the question of who shot Sam, largely because of the show's structure which lets us know far more about Sam in mundane, narratively unnecessary flashbacks than in scenes before her shooting.
She feels just as present in episode 4 or 5 as she does episode 1, so her comatose state fails to fully register with viewers or inspire much heartache.
There's equally no real bite to any of the other storylines, whether they're personal battles with addiction or more wide-ranging political conspiracies or the titular fires. It's all just stuff happening, none of which feels particularly consequential because everything is divulged so piece-meal and without lustre.
The tone is fairly sombre and sincere throughout, but when it allows itself to become more playful it really registers and the whole series lights up – Tortorella in particular gets a few of these moments. They're rare, but point to the more energetic, bouncier endeavour that this show could have been.
It would be hard for me to say that City on Fire should be top of your watchlist. However, I would also be loathe to warn people off it.
Instead, this is a series to watch when you're scrolling through Apple TV+ and struggling to choose. And if you stick past the first episode and get to know the characters and their individual plights, no matter how down-the-line they are played, then there are still plenty of moments to enjoy here.
City on Fire premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday 12th May 2023. Start your seven-day Apple TV+ free trial.