Fran Lebowitz is a writer, although she says only liked writing until the first time she got paid to do it. She’s a social commentator who doesn’t really like being social — unless one counts parties, which she loves to attend but heaven forbid she would ever host one. Lebowitz is an avowed technical Luddite — she doesn’t own a cell phone, computer or, even, a typewriter. She is a reader, a walker and, most importantly, the embodiment of a New Yorker.
Add all that together and you get Netflix’s “Pretend It’s a City,” three-and-a-half hours of unadulterated fun spread over seven episodes, which leaves one wondering, “How come no one thought of doing this before?” We have season after season of entitled housewives screaming at each other, surely there is room for more pontifications from a noted humorist and raconteur.
Lebowitz is a throwback to a bygone age when one became a celebrity for being a personality, not by having a sex tape. Arriving in New York from Morristown, New Jersey, in the late 1960s Lebowitz made her name as a writer for the Changes, edited by Charles Mingus’ wife Susan Graham Ungaro, where she wrote book and movie reviews, and as a columnist for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine. Lebowitz’s celebrity grew with the 1978 publication of a book of humorous essays, “Metropolitan Life.”
She is a must see on chat shows, and occasionally elicits, “Oh, it’s Fran,” delight when she makes a cameo as a judge on “Law & Order,” or in her friend Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Over the years, Lebowitz has managed to perfectly blend curmudgeonly observation, delivered with hilarious wit, and hilarious anecdotes. She is self-deprecating (“I have never made a good real estate decision”) while also name dropping famous friends into her storytelling.
The show’s title comes from her advice for people who come to a sudden stop on the sidewalk to check a map or look at their phone (let’s be honest, she’s mainly talking about tourists. Having grown up in a tourist resort, I feel her pain. Tourists destroy one’s love for one’s fellow man). Her advice is “Pretend It’s a City. Pretend there are other people in it and not just you.”
Yet, for all her misanthropic protestations, she loves to people watch, preferring that to reading on the subway.
The series is produced and directed by Scorsese, and he does a wonderful job of placing Lebowitz in her element. I would happily watch hours of footage of Lebowitz, in her trademark suit jacket, button-down shirt and Levi’s 501 jeans with the cuff turned up, navigating the crowded New York streets, visibly sighing and side-eyeing people for an entire series.
Fran’s grumpiness is always hilarious. And she has opinions about everything, and every opinion is worth hearing. Scorcese mixes old interview clips with stage shows and conversations at the Player’s club with Scorcese. It is clear the director is in thrall with Lebowitz, and part of the fun is seeing his full body laugh when she delivers some wonderfully caustic bon mot.
Typically, with a Scorsese project, the soundtrack is superbly eclectic, with everything from the Velvet Underground to Plastic Bertrand to Franks Sinatra to Richard Rogers.
Lebowitz arrived in New York at the age of 19 and managed to move in circles with some of the era’s biggest names, which she shares in great anecdotes of Mingus and Warhol (they never really liked each other, she says, and she sold her Warhols two weeks before he died to pay for maintenance on her apartment — proof of her ongoing poor decisions with money).
She tells Spike Lee that she hates sports but loved Mohammed Ali. She tells an incredulous Lee that she was at the first Ali-Frazier fight (she got the tickets from Frank Sinatra via a friend), but she was more interested in the fashion show — “It was a very wonderful fashion and cultural event. Unfortunately, there was a fight in the middle of it,” she says.
We see Lebowitz interviewing her friend Toni Morrison, to whom the series is dedicated, and we see her reduce the Nobel laureate to a fit of laughter..
Lebowitz’s opinions range from shutting down the subway due to a strange smell (How much worse could it smell than usual?). The wellness industry (“About one third of people in the street in New York City have a yoga mat. That alone would keep me from yoga”), money (she’s terrible with it), and her favorite hobby — smoking (her main “goals in life are smoking and plotting revenge”).
There are so many moments that it would probably take three-and-a-half hours to relate them all, so you might as well just watch the show. “Pretend It’s a City” is a love letter to New York, and a celebration of one of the city’s most ardent lovers.
At one point Lebowitz questions the concept of a “guilty pleasure.” If one gets pleasure from something, then why should one feel guilty? “Pretend It’s a City” is pure pleasure. Not watching it is the only thing one should feel guilty about.