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Old Friends in the City

In ‘Pretend It’s a City,’ Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz pal around New York. That’s the show, and that’s all it needs to be.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Before we dive into Pretend It’s a City, the seven-part Fran Lebowitz series now streaming on Netflix, let us first ponder how ludicrous it is for Fran Lebowitz to have a Netflix show in the first place. The 70-year-old author is an icon, but her image belongs on a very specific set of altars: those of New York–based creatives who canonize the city’s rocky postwar years, when rents were cheap and a life in the arts had low overhead. It’s hard to imagine Lebowitz having the kind of mass appeal that makes sense for a global platform. Besides, Lebowitz once declared she doesn’t own a computer, let alone a smartphone. Nevertheless, she’s fast-forwarded past using newfangled technology like a streaming service to producing content for one.

Lebowitz isn’t the only name attached to Pretend It’s a City, though. Every episode is directed by Martin Scorsese, another legendary New Yorker whose affection for Lebowitz is inextricably tied to his love for their mutual hometown—his native, hers adopted. (Lebowitz grew up across the river in Morristown, New Jersey.) Scorsese partnered with Netflix on the release of The Irishman, his sprawling gangster epic from 2019, and will work with Apple on Killers of the Flower Moon, a David Grann adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He paired up with Lebowitz before on 2010’s Public Speaking, an HBO documentary with a more compact running time, if similar concept. The director is, in other words, ideally positioned to bridge the divide between medium and message.

But Scorsese’s contributions to Pretend It’s a City aren’t limited to his work behind the camera. He is more accurately both director and costar, a gentle foil to Lebowitz’s cantankerous takes and a one-man laugh track for her famous bon mots. Pretend It’s a City is partly an introduction of Lebowitz to an audience beyond the NYRB Classics section of cosmopolitan bookstores. It’s also best understood—and sold to audiences who may not recognize this scowling sage in menswear, glasses, and a blunt black bob—as Scorsese’s finest New York movie in years.

“New York” is the operative half of that phrase; “movie” may be a bit of a stretch. Much of Pretend It’s a City depicts Lebowitz opining onstage, whether fielding questions from an audience or interacting with fellow celebrities like Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee, and Scorsese himself. The auteur could have simply edited all this footage into an hour-long sampler not unlike a stand-up special. Instead, he divides it into seven parts loosely organized by topic—transportation; money; the arts—and splices in some interstitials. There are more intimate interview setups: a miniature roundtable in the dining room of The Players, a private social club on Gramercy Park; the more dramatic backdrop of the massive panorama at the Queens Museum, which Lebowitz strolls in soft booties while Scorsese peppers her with questions from above. (In both scenarios, Scorsese and Lebowitz are joined by producer and Ocean’s Eleven screenwriter Ted Griffin, unseen but often heard; Griffin also produced Public Speaking.) There are also clips of Lebowitz simply walking, or appearing on old talk shows. Some bits of New York ephemera, like Mayor Abraham Beame giving a press conference, don’t include her at all.

What Scorsese sees in Lebowitz, and wants us to see in turn, is a living repository of the city’s collective memory. “I have all the habits I had in the ’70s,” she declares. She even looks unstuck in time: a quick YouTube search reveals the same middle part and workman’s jeans Lebowitz wears to this day. Like the narrator of an LCD Soundsystem track, Lebowitz was there, whether the location in question is Max’s Kansas City in the Warhol era or Manhattan the day of the O.J. Simpson verdict, which she maintains is the last time the city was truly quiet before 9/11. “I’m like an eyewitness to this,” Lebowitz says, “this” meaning both New York as a concept and the thousand iterations it’s had since she established permanent residency half a century ago.

“Eyewitness” might be Lebowitz’s true job description, since the one usually attached to her no longer applies. “I used to be a writer,” she admits in the premiere, and she’s not kidding. After a pair of essay collections, Social Studies and Metropolitan Life, established her as a raconteur in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Lebowitz hasn’t published a book since 1994, when she penned a children’s book about pandas. And yet she remains an eternal presence, always good for a pithy quote or handsomely paid speaking engagement, which affords her a multimillion-dollar condo in Chelsea. Lebowitz is adamantly nostalgic, but in some ways ahead of her time. She’s essentially an analog take artist—if she were starting out today, she’d have a podcast and be making bank on Patreon.

And oh, does Lebowitz have takes! “New Yorkers have forgotten how to walk.” “There’s nothing better for a city than a dense population of angry homosexuals.” Jews don’t eat bacon because it’s “too delicious.” Lebowitz is irascible, perhaps performatively so; she always seems mere seconds away from informing passersby that she’s walkin’ here. Yet the irascibility comes from a deeply relatable source. “The anger is, I have no power,” she sighs. “But I’m filled with opinions.”

Pretend It’s a City can try the patience of those disinclined to New York exceptionalism, of which Lebowitz serves as a human mascot. She can come off as out of touch, as when she airily dismisses concerns about the rising cost of living: “No one can afford to live in New York, yet 8 million people do!”—an easy argument to make from the luxe apartment she claims she can’t afford. The series’ length can be excessive, skirting the line between commenting and bloviating. And as expansive as Lebowitz may be, she can speak only to her narrow slice of the New York experience, a limitation of perspective Pretend It’s a City doesn’t pause to acknowledge. I am, myself, a recovering New Yorker. At times, Pretend It’s a City made me pine for my former home; at others, its indulgence made me realize I could no longer relate.

But Pretend It’s a City joins a larger canon that helps its flaws fade into a bigger picture. Scorsese’s cinematic career is as varied as it is long, ranging from religious parables to children’s fantasy to psychological horror. His most enduring theme, however, is the city of New York, from the Mean Streets of Little Italy to the soundstage replica of Five Points overrun by Gangs of New York. Lebowitz had a cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street as the judge who sentences DiCaprio’s white-collar criminal, and Pretend It’s a City weaves in footage from Taxi Driver and After Hours to illustrate her erstwhile profession. Pretend It’s a City works best as a sort of appendix to Scorsese’s scripted CV, with Lebowitz as both subject and collaborator. (Both she and Scorsese are credited as executive producers.) Lebowitz was already a Scorsese character; now, she’s a Scorsese heroine.

The camaraderie, above all, is what smooths over the show’s flaws. Lebowitz isn’t just unloading on the camera; she’s kibitzing with a friend who’s also an eager, willing audience. Not all of us are lucky enough to have a bestie who can craft a nearly four-hour TV show in our honor. But not all of us live a life as charmed as Lebowitz, transformed by time and sheer force of will into a real-life synecdoche (for) New York.

An earlier version of this piece mistakenly referred to Max Fish.