In ‘City on Fire,’ the New York of the Early 2000s Burns Bright

On the rooftop of the InterContinental Barclay Hotel in Manhattan last summer, a small group of people gazed awe-struck at an unremarkable morning sky, hemmed-in by Midtown skyscrapers. “Oh my goodness, look,” one said. “My whole life, never seen anything like it,” said another.

To the younger actors there to help recreate the night of Aug. 14, 2003, what they “saw” required a leap of imagination. But thanks to postproduction wizardry, viewers of the new series “City on Fire,” debuting May 12 on Apple TV+, will see what for New Yorkers during the regionwide blackout that night was so extraordinary: a night sky dotted with stars.

The 2003 blackout had a distinctly communal energy compared with the blackout of 1977, which features prominently in the Garth Risk Hallberg novel “City on Fire,” on which the Apple series is based. But for the show’s creators, Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz, the ’03 blackout was one of several historical parallels that made them confident they could transpose Hallberg’s 900-page mystery about punk, young love and anarchy from one period of intense change to another: the post-9/11 era. As in the late ’70s, New York City’s future then seemed uncertain and its underground rock scene was vital.

It was the time of the Strokes and Friendster. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the beginning of Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial rezoning efforts. It was also … 20 years ago now, making it ripe for the nostalgia cycle.

“I totally romanticize the early 2000s,” said Chase Sui Wonders, 26, who plays the young femme fatale Samantha, an N.Y.U. freshman who takes analog photos, publishes a fanzine and is obsessed with a fictional downtown band called Ex Post Facto. “It was so fun to play the no-technology aspect of that time period where you just, like, call someone on their home phone, like: ‘Meet me in Tompkins Square Park at noon, and if you’re there, great. If not, I’ll find someone else around there to hang out with.’”

Sui Wonders plays a budding photographer who publishes a fanzine; Oleff’s character is her devoted admirer.Credit…Apple TV+

That period also, crucially, has been mostly unexplored by modern scripted series. The challenge Savage and Schwartz faced, then, was twofold: Could they do justice to the novel’s chaotic ’70s spirit while shifting the timeline a quarter-century? And could they, in turn, do justice to the spirit of 2003 in a way that resonated today?

Wyatt Oleff, who plays the young male lead, Charlie, seemed to think so. A naïve Long Island kid whose father died in 9/11, Charlie is only just discovering the city, following his crush, Samantha, from one record store and music venue to another — and ultimately into the criminal underworld. Like Charlie, Oleff is a newcomer to New York. He was born in 2003.

“That transitionary feel from one era to the next, I think, is, like, so fascinating for me, because I feel like I’m in a very transitionary time in my life,” he said. “And I feel like the show encapsulates that feeling of growing up and changing.”

The year 2003 is a North Star for Savage and Schwartz, but not because they spent it bouncing between Brooklyn loft parties. That was the year Schwartz’s hit Fox drama “The O.C.” debuted. (Savage was an executive producer and writer, and the two later created “Gossip Girl” together.)

Although “The O.C.” was set in Southern California, its buzzy soundtrack helped bring the era’s independent music — including New York acts like the Walkmen, Interpol and LCD Soundsystem — to a mainstream audience.

As they began brainstorming series ideas with Apple, “City on Fire,” was on a long list of “dream projects,” Savage said. The book had drawn enormous buzz leading up to its 2015 release, and it was optioned by Scott Rudin for a film before it even had a publishing deal. Savage and Schwartz were surprised to learn that the screen rights were available again.

Still, they weren’t sure the world needed yet another show set in ’70s New York, Schwartz said, “and also the ’70s now, for an audience — it was 50 years ago. So it starts to get a little abstract.”

“I totally romanticize the early 2000s,” Sui Wonders said. “It was so fun to play the no-technology aspect of that time period.”Credit…Evelyn Freja for The New York Times

Less abstract was 2003. But it carried other risks.

“We were nervous to talk to Garth,” Savage said, aware that the change “was pretty substantial.” Hallberg liked the idea. According to Savage, he “talked a lot about the fact that he was using the ’70s to write about the contemporary period that he was living in and writing in.”

She and Schwartz hope their show might similarly relate to the present day.

“That period of the ’70s was a time when people were questioning if New York City was going to survive as a city,” Schwartz said, adding that in the years after 9/11, when Hallberg began writing the novel, “the same questions were being asked.” In another somber echo, much of Manhattan was shuttered because of Covid when production on the show began. That also raised “a lot of fears about New York City surviving,” he said.

“The O.C.” had taught Savage and Schwartz the value of getting the music right — but if anything, that was even more crucial with “City on Fire.” Scenes are set in grimy clubs where Karen O (spliced in using archival footage) howls onstage. One of the main characters, William, played by Nico Tortorella, is the former singer of Ex Post Facto, who becomes embroiled in a shooting that may involve his estranged Upper East Side family. (His sister, Regan, is played by Jemima Kirke.) Fittingly, the soundtrack is killer. Music is ever-present.

“Post-9/11 music in general, I think, we’re kind of, like, experiencing something similar to that right now, just post-pandemic music,” Tortorella, 34, said. “There’s this just, like, fight for life that exists in the sound, this freedom.”

Xavier Clyde, left, and Nico Tortorella play partners who become embroiled in a shooting.Credit…Apple TV+
Jemima Kirke plays the sister of Tortorella’s character.Credit…Apple TV+

Bringing Ex Post Facto to life — and its later iteration, Ex Nihilo — was its own musical side project. For that, the music supervisor, Jonathan Leahy, pulled together a small group of songwriters to write and demo original songs, which the music producers Abe Seiferth and Jason Hill turned into the fully fleshed-out recordings and live performances in the show. (Hill also composed the score.) Tortorella and Max Milner, who plays William’s replacement in the band, did the vocals. Apple plans to release the songs online and on limited edition vinyl.

“It’s an impossible task to make the music sound like this very specific time and place but also: Do not make it sound, at all, like you’re ripping somebody off,” Leahy said. “So we tried to thread that needle.”

For anyone who was in New York in 2003, the memories have gotten a little dusty. (For the record: That was the summer I moved here, at 24.) But certain moments remain crisp — sealed, perhaps, by the tensions of the moment. When the lights went out, there was no widespread looting and arson as in ’77. But as Hallberg reminded me by phone, there was “a sharp, sharp punch of panic,” where everyone thought, “Oh my God, is it happening again? Is this a terrorist attack?”

What followed, as he put it, was a “long tail of this sweet relief.” Much of the city turned into a kind of street carnival, as bodegas and supermarkets scrambled to empty their warming beer and meat coolers.

“There is a tradition here,” Oleff said of New York. “But there’s also so much room for experimentation that it becomes an entirely different city every few years.”Credit…Evelyn Freja for The New York Times

Some things haven’t changed a lot since 2003, which the show suggests in its attention to issues like class, race and gentrification. “These are themes that will honestly probably carry on throughout human history,” said Xavier Clyde, 29, who plays William’s boyfriend, Mercer, a young Black man who is suspected falsely in a shooting. “No matter what time period these things are presented to us, they’re always going to resonate.”

But if the view through “City on Fire” is a little rose-colored otherwise, that’s a New York tradition. In 2003 the cool kids complained about how derivative the new music was — Ever heard of the Stooges?! — and how tame Manhattan already seemed compared with the halcyon days of CBGB and frequent muggings.

Today appears to be no exception.

“If we can all agree on one thing, it’s that technology is bad a lot of the time,” said Sui Wonders, laughing as she reflected on her own time compared with ’03. One of the most inspiring parts of the show for her was the way it asked, as she put it: “How did people connect before the digital age?”

“Whatever ensues, chaos or connection,” she continued, “at least people are connecting.”

So maybe the kids are all right. At the very least, Oleff — at 19, the youngest member of the main cast — seemed too wise to get into the kind of trouble his character does.

“There’s always a cycle,” he said about his newly adopted city. “People are going to come in and change it. And that’s also kind of what I’m learning is the beauty of New York: There is a tradition here, but there’s also so much room for experimentation that it becomes an entirely different city every few years.

“And that, for me, feels like what New York is.”

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