Netflix’s “Pretend It’s a City” takes its title from a remark by Fran Liebowitz. It’s a command to the tourists who slowly walk down the crowded sidewalks of Manhattan, jamming up pedestrian traffic and frustrating New York locals who are otherwise in a hurry. It’s one of innumerable anecdotes from Liebowitz, a writer and public speaker who has occasionally acted in film and television. Some might call her a humorist, though her comedic effect is more a byproduct of her role as a cultural observer who is as much a fixture of contemporary New York City as Central Park.
The Netflix series itself is as distinct and original a television genre as Liebowitz is a character. She is unlike anyone many of us may regularly encounter anywhere. The show is part comedy, part documentary series, but doesn’t neatly fall under these labels. It is indeed very funny and it tells the story of Leibowitz’s life. Whatever one might call it, the format is a series of conversations she has with film directors Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, as well as actor Alec Baldwin, among others. The filmed conversations happen in a restaurant and as part of interviews in front of live audiences. Sometimes these happen while Liebowitz walks the actual New York streets and sometimes while she walks around a massive scale model of the city.
Leibowitz’s anecdotes showcase her brilliant wit and vivid observations about New York, herself, and contemporary life. Her sense of humor and blunt, no-nonsense demeanor are part of her charm, allowing her to offer skewering critiques that are amusing and quickly cut to the truth. As a former New Yorker, her stories of the city, its culture, lifestyle and people, great and flawed, ring true and make us a bit homesick. But Liebowitz’s opinions on all matters are full of wisdom to be cherished by all.