In City on Fire, the latest Apple TV Plus series to hit the streamer, New York is a city full of secrets. The show is a web of seemingly unrelated but interconnecting stories that span from the upper-class Upper East Side of New York City to the downtown squats of punk band members. The figure at the center of this web joining everyone together is Sam Yeung, played by Chase Sui Wonders (Bodies Bodies Bodies), an NYU freshman whose shooting on a summer night in Central Park kicks off the series' snowballing events.
For Wonders, Sam was a dream role. "It's such an engaging story and there are so many entry points to it, but specifically Sam – her character is so magnetic and so layered," she says. "Getting to cosplay as a cool, confident, free-spirited girl was the dream."
The more we learn about Sam, though – from her affair with a married man to her involvement with a series of mysterious fires – the more possible motives can be attributed to her tragic assault. "What drives the drama of the show is that Sam has all these secrets because she's this social chameleon who weasels her way into all these different scenes," Wonders explains.
"She's able to see the spread of this story and absorb all this information. She's sitting on so many unanswered questions that are just about to bubble to the surface and answers start to formulate – as soon as they do, that's when she gets shot. That bubbling tension was really fun to play and really thrilling. It makes the flashbacks all the more satisfying and torturous."
Sam's story is most closely entwined with that of Charlie, played by Wyatt Oleff, a high school senior from Sam's Long Island hometown. "Charlie is such a fun character," Oleff, who's previously appeared in It and Netflix's I Am Not Okay With This, says. "He's such a great role to play, he has such a beautiful arc, and being able to do that across eight episodes is something I've never done before."
This arc is courtesy of Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, the brains behind legendary installments of the teen TV canon like The O.C. and Gossip Girl. "Josh and Stephanie [are] people who know how to make a show that really is in the conversation of the industry," says Xavier Clyde, who plays Mercer, the person who first finds Sam after she's been shot, while Wonders tells us that the pair "instantly" drew her to the project. "They know their stuff. I grew up on Gossip Girl and The O.C., so there was so much trust right off the bat, knowing these people know exactly what they're doing," she says, while Nico Tortorella, who plays troubled artist William, asserts that City on Fire is the duo's "best work yet. This is definitely their most elevated version of what they do best."
"They're the best kind of tag team for this kind of project," Wonders continues. "And just knowing the sheer scope of this story, and then being able to keep all the timeline straight, from top to bottom, just to have this airtight sense of story and this intricate puzzle was amazing."
Two other pieces of City on Fire's puzzle are Regan (Girls and Sex Education's Jemima Kirke), a wealthy Upper East Sider, and her husband Keith (Succession's Ashley Zukerman). "I loved that every one of the characters was dealing with some deep personal conflict at the start of the show, and there's a question about whether they can reveal their secrets and, then, can they heal from that," Zukerman tells us. "It makes for great scenes, where everything is very loaded, and everything is very highly charged, and that's a very enjoyable thing to play."
"It was really unlike anything I've ever done," Kirke adds. "Most of the stuff I've done has been quite nuanced and a bit polarizing or slower, or more of a think piece or a broad comedy. I've never really played a character in a story like this before, in a thriller, a story where something's always happening and the character is constantly dealing with something. There's no mundane moment."
City on Fire is based on the critically acclaimed novel of the same name by Garth Risk Hallberg. While many plot points have remained the same between page and screen, one key difference is the time period: Hallberg's novel takes place in the '70s, whereas the series is set in 2003.
"While the two periods match, in that it was a time of great upheaval and tumult, and both were periods of rapid change, they might have thought that this was a moment that was more accessible to an audience today, that we could see the seeds being planted then of our lives now," Zukerman explains. "This is a moment just pre-technology, post 9/11, it's a black hole of creativity, and it's a moment where everything was about to change. It was really wise to tap into that moment and tell the story about people trying to connect."
"It's kind of an untouched time period in TV as a period piece, and especially in the wake of 9/11 I think there's just this overwhelming sense of solidarity that happened to New York," adds Wonders. The attack on the Twin Towers looms heavy over Charlie, who lost his father on September 11. He first meets Sam while browsing in a record store in the city after a therapy session, and she offers him a welcome distraction. "When Charlie lost his father, he started floating and he didn't have direction or anyone to really ground him. He had his mom, but he feels like his mom didn't really understand what he was going through," Oleff says.
"When Sam finds him, it feels like someone gives him finally a sense of belonging, purpose, and direction. She's his mentor, and he has someone who is confident and will help ground him because he just doesn't know where he wants to go. So, for him, this is a way of being able to have someone else in his life that he can care for, and give all that love to, while not having to really think about [his grief] anymore."
The connection goes both ways, though. "Charlie is a way for Sam to find a home, which I think at the offset parades as something different," says Wonders. "Sam's like, 'I'm gonna be your teacher. I'm gonna show you the ropes.' But as you move on, you find something really beautiful. It's a classic flip of Sam needing Charlie just as much as Charlie needs Sam, and her needing someone to take care of her just as much as he does."
The first three episodes of City on Fire are out now on Apple TV Plus, with subsequent episodes releasing every Friday. For more viewing inspiration, fill out your watch list with our picks of the best new TV shows in 2023 and beyond.