Karl Puschmann: TV’s most captivating show is simply two people talking


There’s no addictive drama or big budget spectacle to hook you in and get you rushing to the next episode. In truth there’s not much of anything. All there is in Netflix’s new series Pretend It’s a City are two people talking. Or, more accurately, one person ranting and one person clutching their sides in laughter. It is hands down the best show currently on TV.

It helps, of course, that the two people are legends in their fields. The person uproariously laughing is famed director Martin Scorsese and the person responsible for this is celebrated author Fran Lebowitz.

Lebowitz came to fame at the tail end of the 70s when Metropolitan Life, a collection of curmudgeonly and comedic essays she’d written for various hip magazines about life in New York, was published. It became a best seller.

A few years later she repeated the trick with a collection titled Social Studies and then she smashed headfirst into writers block, or ‘writers blockade,’ as she wryly put it. A children’s book came in the 90s and that was pretty much that for her writing career.

Instead, she took her great wit off the page, reinvented herself as a raconteur and hit the speaking circuit. She also ventured into acting and regularly tussled with late night talk show hosts who tried to keep up with her racing wit. All things, you’ll notice, that are not writing.


Pretend It’s a City is also not writing. Instead, each of its six episodes sees Scorsese lobbing Lebowitz a topic of conversation – New York, writing, Leonardo DiCaprio – which she smashes back over the net with devastating hilarity and pinpoint accuracy to win the point. And… that’s really it.

Sometimes they talk at a table in a very exclusive and lush New York bar that’s all polished wood and gold trim. Other times they’re onstage in front of an audience, where Lebowitz occasionally entertains – and eviscerates – audience questions.

One brave yet foolhardy audience member asks, “Does it bother you when…” before Lebowitz immediately cuts her off with a curt, “yes”.

Occasionally they venture outside. Scorsese, who also directed the series, positions her towering like Godzilla over the Queens Museum’s scale model of New York City where she muses on why certain types are infuriated by her.

“It does surprise me because, so what? Who am I? Am I making decisions for you?” she states. “I’m not in charge of anything. I can understand people being angry at me when I say, ‘people should do this,” or ‘this should happen,” if people thought that I could change it. But of course if I could change it, I wouldn’t be so angry. The anger is I have no power. But I am filled with opinions.”

Those opinions lead her to tramp through the tourist trap of Times Square, an area of New York she openly detests.

“The streets are completely packed with these horrible planters, with fake plants or they may be real plants I don’t know, but what are plants doing in Times Square?” she asks, pained by the very existence of these floral decorations, while Scorsese keels over laughing. “Plants, lawn chairs, trinkets… it looks like my grandmother’s apartment.”

Both are proud New Yorkers so most of their conversations, sorry, Lebowitz’s monologues, center around what New York was like in the 70s and what it has become today.

She mourns the loss of its artistic sole to wildly expensive rents and ongoing gentrification even as they reminiscence about buildings in the city collapsing without warning.

“One day, it just fell down,” she says, exasperated, when talking about a music venue she would regularly frequent in the 70s. “The building just fell down!”

“That was the third building that fell down that year,” Scorsese adds, chuckling.

“It was just the way it was,” she says.

In the 70s and 80s Lebowitz was hip and switched on, a literary star on the scene, and the show is filled with her terrific stories from New York’s art scene. One standout is about being chased for blocks by fiery jazz legend Charles Mingus who jumped off stage mid- performance to angrily pursue her, before the pair became close friends.

While many of her cantankerous rants are delivered with a practised, and well rehearsed, ease they are, nevertheless, still delightfully irritable and filled with plenty of off-the-cuff spontaneity. Lebowitz is a veritable zing machine, spitting out witty one liners at a relentless pace while backing up her assertions with constant and emphatic hand gestures.

But behind all the ranting and complaining is plenty of laughter and an obvious affection. Not just between the hosts, who have long been friends, but also for the subject of the majority of Lebowitz’s verbal derision.

At its heart Pretend It’s a City is a love letter to New York disguised as a snappy grump.

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