Last week, the first three episodes of the highly anticipated adaptation of one of the most expensive debut novels of all time, City on Fire, were released on Apple TV+ to a lot of applause. I’m just kidding. Apart from the fat paycheck that Garth Risk Hallberg got for no apparent reason and the fact that three episodes of the aforementioned show were released, everything else that I said is a lie. Hallberg’s book was critically panned when it was published in 2015, with a couple of critics calling it overrated. And its serialized adaptation has been bashed left, right, and center, with a lot of them pointing out its non-incendiary qualities, which stand in stark contrast to the show’s title. Personally speaking, I hated those first three episodes a lot, which largely revolved around an attack on a college freshman named Samantha and how it affected the lives of Charlie, William, Mercer, Keith, Regan, and more. Is the quality going to improve with today’s episode? Let’s check it out.
Major Spoilers Ahead
Charlie Is A Wanted Man
Episode 4 of City on Fire starts with a flashback sequence of Sam and Charlie buying Christmas presents from a bookstore. Sam says something pretentious about the book she’s buying for Nicky, and Charlie wonders why she has never given him a book. As he sulks, Sam takes a picture of him. Charlie asks why she didn’t ask him to smile, and Sam says that she wasn’t taking a picture of him but of the wall behind him. The episode cuts to the present day, with Sewer and Charlie giving out anti-gentrification fliers in front of that same bookstore, with the wall that Sam was talking about in the background. And it’s probably supposed to be this wondrous moment where you realize the things that Sam notices. But the shot is so bland, and the wall is so far away from the foreground that the details are not very noticeable and look like a bunch of trash from afar. They couldn’t get the characters to walk on the other side of the street to give us a proper view of the details, or what?
Anyway, what’s happening in the foreground between Sewer and Charlie is cringe-worthy because they expose their faux political stance, as none of them actually know why they’re burning buildings. I know that this is intentional, and it’s supposed to show the kids’ inability to understand the politics of the time. However, this is so irrelevant in the modern context because kids are way more adept at understanding politics than most adults are, and they’re actively impacting modern-day policies in a positive way. So, this whole take seems very dated and obtuse. Coming back to the show, the narrative shifts to William, who has resorted to performing fellatio on strangers in public bathrooms so that he can buy drugs with that money. That said, the stranger turns out to be a police officer who proceeds to chase William down and arrest him for prostitution. Charlie and Sewer also run from the police after Charlie is identified due to the “wanted” posters in a bookshop, but they manage to get away. Willam’s arrest is conveyed to Detective Ali by Detective Patricia while he’s in the middle of a male fertility test, which indicates that Ali and his wife’s marriage issues are due to their inability to have a child.
While Ali gets back to his office, the episode focuses on Regan, who is helping Will find his jersey. That’s when he comes across a file on Will’s computer that indicates that he’s the one who sent her the anonymous note about Keith cheating on her with Sam. So, she calls Keith while he’s trying to visit Sam at the hospital and tells him to come home for a discussion on whether or not Will is the killer. On his way back, Keith is followed by one of Nicky’s men. Disconnected from this plot because they’ve got to lay low, Charlie gets a makeover so that he isn’t recognizable. That doesn’t stop the guy from having a panic attack because he’s a felon now, which is only aggravated by Sol. Thankfully, Nicky stops things from getting too serious. Well, technically, all these characters are so annoying that I wish they would start fighting each other, like in Fight Club but for teens. At least then the show will become a little more interesting.
William Decides To Help With Ali’s Investigation
Ali and William have a long conversation, which is essentially a recap of the first three episodes. And—apologies for the digression—this is a phenomenon that I am starting to notice in shows lately where two characters suddenly stop the progression of the plot to deliver exposition about what has happened. Due to all the information that has spilled out of the WGA strike, I am aware of productions and OTT platforms shrinking writers’ rooms to save money. So, is this a symptom of that? Are the overworked and underpaid writers crying for help with these cyclical recaps? If that’s the case, well, it’s working because it’s getting on my nerves and compelling me to shout at these productions and OTT platforms to get more writers who can write good dialogue. By the way, once the recap is over, Ali and William come to the agreement that Ali is going to let him go if William stays off the drugs and helps Ali nab the killer because Sam was associated with his former band, Ex Post Facto (currently Ex Nihilo). And, surprise, surprise, Ali lets him go.
When Ali gets some “alone time,” he focuses on Sam’s zines to see if there are any clues there, and it’s essentially a snapshot of her whole life story, including how she met Keith and Charlie. Now, this whole sequence is supposed to look like Richard Linklater’s animated films achieved via rotoscoping, e.g., “Waking Life,” “Scanner Darkly,” and “Apollo 11: A Space Age Childhood.” But the warped edges of the characters and their non-descript faces (which keep warbling all the time in a pretty unappealing way) make it seem like it’s an A.I.-generated or at least A.I.-assisted animation. I can be wrong (because I clearly don’t have access to the behind-the-scenes stuff), but I won’t be surprised if it’s eventually revealed that the makers have relied on A.I. for this animated sequence to save up on money (or some other anti-artistic reason). There’s a jarring cut from Ali’s investigation to Sewer getting intimate with Charlie. When I was watching the episode, I had to rewind to Sewer and Charlie’s last scene because it seemed like I had missed something. And I hadn’t. Nothing about their dynamic suggested that they were interested in each other romantically. Charlie was being harassed by Sol, and Nicky was trying to stop that. How did things go from that to whatever Charlie and Sewer are doing? Was something left on the cutting room floor? If so, why? To speed up the narrative? If that’s the case, then that didn’t help because the episode is extremely convoluted and slow.
Anyway, Charlie utters some grade-school logic about how his soul is intertwined with Sam’s, so he can’t give his body to Sewer. That deeply moves Sewer, and she says that her real name is Lorraine, and then they proceed to hug each other as my soul and body both enter maximum cringe territory. To make things worse, this moment is punctuated by Amory weirdly ordering a drink and William going on a rant about how he needs to solve Sam’s murder attempt and that he won’t go into rehab. We return to Charlie and the gang, who seem to be talking about Sam’s missing camera. Sol says something about Nicky knowing about Sam’s attacker, and Nicky just bails on everyone as if he couldn’t spare two seconds to name the person who tried to kill Sam. Yes, it’s “supposed” to create intrigue, but it feels contrived. You either don’t create a scenario where such an interaction happens or if you create a scenario where such an interaction happens, then you follow it to its logical conclusion. Trying to create suspense like this simply looks stupid. Also, everything about Ex Nihilo seems stupid because the actors are doing a poor job of portraying the characters, especially Max Milner. It’s hard to say if it’s the worst performance in City on Fire because everyone else is pretty bad.
Did Will Try To Kill Samantha?
The self-appointed detective, William, starts to follow Nicky right when he has to go and meet Amory. Do you see why the whole show feels so bloody contrived? There’s nothing spontaneous or organic about it. Everything happens so randomly and so conveniently that it’s truly frustrating. Well, long story short, William finds out that Nicky has been conducting those attacks for Amory, and Keith was the one who was delivering Amory’s money to Nicky. Why? Gentrification. Yes, Nicky isn’t fighting gentrification. He is enabling it, thereby confounding the show’s politics even more. This is truly some of the most horrible writing I’ve seen in a T.V. show in my life, and the fact that it’s streaming on an OTT platform like Apple TV+ makes it worse. You don’t believe me? Guess what Ali does in his conversation scene with Patricia? He recaps everything that we already know about Sam and Keith before going to Regan to question her about her husband’s whereabouts and whether or not she thinks that Keith is the one who tried to kill Samantha. Amory comes to the rescue and escorts the detectives out of the building.
At the end of episode 4 of City on Fire, Nicky’s men attack Keith while he’s attending a show of 2 Fast 2 Furious with his son. By the way, this is the only relevant reference in the series because a new Fast and Furious movie was released this week. Why did Nicky’s men beat up Keith? Isn’t it obvious? Amory stopped giving Nicky any money, and since they can’t directly hurt Amory, they have taken the indirect route, i.e., hurting Amory’s delivery boy. Also, Keith and Sam’s affair is a big deal. So, it’s a way of showing that they can not only hurt Keith’s reputation but also impact his physical well-being. Now, before Keith can recover from this episode, he is forced to confront Will about seeing him cheat on Regan with Sam. And before he can complete that conversation properly, he gets a call from Regan about the visit from the detective. That leads Keith to think that Will is possibly the shooter because the gun that he had in his pouch in his closet is missing. Before Keith can ask Will about that, Ali and Patricia show up at his doorstep.
On some other side of the city, Charlie finds the reel from Sam’s camera. In doing so, this episode leaves us with two questions. Is Will going to admit that he tried to kill Sam? What is Charlie going to find in Sam’s camera? Well, since Will is a minor, it’s probable that even if he’s the killer, his punishment won’t be severe. Also, since the hints about Will being the killer are so obvious, he’s probably not the culprit. That said, the show is really stupid and always takes the dumbest route. As for Charlie, he’s probably going to find some concrete evidence of Sam’s relationship with Keith, and he’ll shift the police’s focus from him to Keith. By the way, there’s a good chance that this piece of information is going to tarnish this perfect and fictional image of Sam that Charlie has in his mind. If he does something radical because of that, it’ll make his character a little interesting to watch.