An Endorsement of Fran Culture


Lebowitz surveys her domain in miniature at the Queens Museum

James Hardy, Editor

In Season 2, Episode 6 of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, we open on a New York City sidewalk, with main characters Dev(Ansari), Arnold, and Denise discussing the burden of expecting a twist at the end of Death Castle, a fictional hit horror movie starring Nick Cage.

But as they continue walking off to our right, the camera pans left, shifting the focus to a stocky doorman in a purple uniform listening to one of his building’s tenants rant about political correctness. For the next half hour, Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang whisk us through the lives of three New Yorkers, replacing the three main characters’ troubles with those of Eddie the doorman, Maya the deaf cashier, and Samuel the cab driver. In the end, the almighty powers of television bring all of our temporary protagonists to a movie theater, where the twist of Death Castle unfolds offscreen as we watch their reactions. Cut to black. 

Although the stories in it have nothing to do with the series’ main plot and the characters are nowhere to be found before or after it, Episode 6 fits into the season like a glove. Time after time, the show is just as much about New York as it is about Dev and Co. and this episode, aptly titled New York, I Love You(after the 2008 film of the same name), is only the most blatant example of Ansari’s NYC worship. Day trips to art museums, the main characters’ obsession with the food scene, and stunning shots of iconic locations like Washington Square Park make it abundantly clear that this is his own rendition of the cliché love letter to the city. Although it’s hard not to adore the passion behind it, the style isn’t exactly original. The episode left me wishing someone would do it their own way and breathe some much-needed new energy into the trope.

I may have just found my champion.

Pretend It’s a City rejects almost everything about Ansari’s creation, from its glamorization of young professional life in New York to its love of the city’s citizens. It all centers around Fran Lebowitz, famed writer and longtime New Yorker, who, with legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese in tow as a Robinesque sidekick, tells stories from her 70 years through a hodgepodge of short clips. The differences between it and Master of None cannot be understated. Lebowitz excoriates many things throughout the show—Times Square, the subway, and city construction among them—but above all other criticisms, emphasizes her absolute contempt for other people. When the great Toni Morrison told her to use “we” instead of “you” in her writing to invite the reader in, Lebowitz responded harshly. “Well I don’t want to invite the reader in,” she told her longtime friend. “I’m not a hostess. I’m a prosecutor!”

All of these complaints give the series an almost Costanza-esque quality. In the very first episode, her reasoning that “The anger is I have no power, but I am filled with opinions,” feels similar to Frank Costanza at the annual Festivus dinner, shoutingThe tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances. I got a lot of problems with you people! And now you’re gonna hear about it!”

The people, places, and things that fall into her crosshairs include: the carelessness of young people on the subway, art auctions, recent criticism of Edith Wharton, boxing, e-cigarettes, social media, and wellness trends. When an audience member asked a question she didn’t like, Lebowitz even took aim at them. “How do you acquire a sense of humor? The same way you acquire a sense of height,” she quipped.

In interview clips with Morrison, Spike Lee, Alec Baldwin, and David Letterman, however, her stories about being young in the city are much more nostalgic. Of course, the sardonic humor and biting wit remain, but they don’t stop her from romanticizing a time in New York’s history that few remember fondly. Even when regaling us with tales of the lack of proper heating, her unpleasant time as a cab driver, and her car getting broken into because she left an apple on the dashboard, she maintains that the city has always been great. “There were numerous things I was thinking about, but New York getting better was not one of them,” said Lebowitz. “New York was great, that’s why I came here! I didn’t come here because it was clean.”

Although these anecdotes and passing remarks jolt erratically from topic to topic with no chronological pattern, one thing in particular is consistent throughout the show: her unique cadence of rapid bursts and frequent pauses. The best comparison is that of an impatient driver in heavy traffic, rushing a few feet forward only to slam on the brakes a split second later. But somehow, neither of these aspects give the viewer whiplash, instead enhancing the conversational nature of the show. The cadence makes me feel as if I’m listening to a hilarious friend rant off the top of their head about what’s bothering them, not a 70-year-old woman who would hate how much I use my phone. Without polish or preparation, Lebowitz’s remarks, whether I agree with them or not, feel extremely candid. Though she would hate to hear it, I would almost say she invites the viewer in.

Just as constant as Lebowitz’s unusual manner of speaking is her sidekick’s uncontrollable laughter at every single joke. Although prominent enough to be mocked by SNL’s Weekend Update, it can’t overshadow the fact that once again, Scorsese has hit his mark. He managed to fuse dinner conversations, talk show appearances, and live seminars into a product that falls somewhere between NPR interview and stand-up routine, painting a much more complete picture of Lebowitz and her life in New York than we could ever get from a Fresh Air appearance. Interspersed among the clips are scenes of her walking through the city, pictures and videos of old New York locales, and a host of other cultural and political esoterica from the past four decades. Often set to swelling orchestral themes or smooth jazz, these interruptions give each and every story a beautiful patina-like texture that almost balances out the harshness of her criticisms.

I understand that it may seem odd to enjoy watching someone rant with minimal breaks for 7 straight episodes, but I’m reminded of something Lebowitz says about the worst thing that can happen when reading a book: “I forgot I was reading it’ is much worse than ‘I closed it in a fury!’” Sure, some of her complaints are minuscule, unimportant, and downright petty, but not once are they boring. This airing of grievances can’t be missed.

Pretend It’s a City is available on Netflix.