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An admirable Tales Of The City update wants to be considered radical without being radical

Murray Bartlett (left), Laura Linney
Photo: Alison Cohn Rosa (Netflix)
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It’s not particularly surprising that Tales Of The City is finding new life in 2019. For one, we’re in an era of media where basically anything that’s ever existed can return at some point but also because Tales Of The City has already proved its staying power. The book series, which was originally serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1978, has spawned a 1993 U.K. series (shown in the United States on PBS) followed by two Showtime installments in 1998 and 2001. In 1999, it inspired a thematic concert series; in 2011, a musical at the American Conservatory Theater; and from 2013-2017, BBC Radio 4 aired eight radio adaptations covering the nine novels. In a general sense, the novels are simultaneously of their era and ultimately timeless: The early trio of books capture specifics of living in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early ’80s, weaving in real life people and events such as Jim Jones and, later, the AIDS epidemic. But they also capture the overall, still-relevant feel of being queer in this world—from a character dealing with his parents’ homophobia to the happiness of finding a queer community who accepts you as you are.

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It’s why, in many ways, the basic ideals of Tales Of The City are easily translatable to 2019 (albeit with a few updates of some of the cringier aspects). The new Netflix limited series, which credits Orange Is The New Black’s Lauren Morelli as its showrunner and Maupin himself as an executive producer, is technically a sequel to the original miniseries with a combination of the same characters (some played by the same actors) and a new group of younger residents at 28 Barbary Lane, the apartment building where most everyone’s lives intersect. It’s a welcome update that aims to appeal to both original fans and a younger generation of queer folks.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City follows Mary Ann Singleton (Linney reprising her role), a once-naïve and sheltered woman who originally moved from Ohio to San Francisco in 1978, as she returns to Barbary after 20 years of being away. Mary Ann chose to pursue a television career over her family—ex-husband Brian (Paul Gross) and adopted daughter Shawna (Ellen Page, who fits in perfectly)—and ended up married in Connecticut. A mid-life crisis sends her back to San Francisco, back at the same building, and back drawn into the world and antics of Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), Barbary’s eccentric landlady. Anna is a trans woman and Dukakis revives her original role; Morelli has stated that if she were to cast new, Anna would be played by a trans actress. Indeed, young Anna in a flashback episode is played by Jen Richards (also wonderful: A Fantastic Woman’s Daniela Vega plays her friend), and it’s worth noting that Morelli has trans writers and directors behind the scenes, too.

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Mary Ann—needy, occasionally obnoxious, but quite easy to root for—quickly falls back into Barbary, especially upon seeing her friend Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Murray Bartlett) while attending Anna’s 90th birthday celebration and watching the joyous, decidedly queer party. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she asks her new husband. “It’s… something,” he replies.

The same could be said for Tales Of The City as a whole: It’s at times wonderful and at times… something. It’s somewhat fascinating watching the “new generation” (who are, according to Michael, “beautiful and terribly depressing”) which includes Mary Ann’s queer daughter Shawna, young couple Margot (May Hong) and her trans boyfriend Jake (Josiah Victoria Garcia), and social media-obsessed twins Ani and Raven (Ashley Park, Christopher Larkin). Also at the party is young filmmaker Claire (Zosia Mamet) who is making a documentary “about queer community and its dissolution as a result of the strangling grip that capitalism has on San Francisco,” a mouthful that reflects how the show’s characters frequently converse.

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Beloved Anna, who always seems to know everything about everyone before anyone else, sometimes speaks like a fortune cookie, which you’re likely used to if you’ve read the books, and it’s a delivery that few people can pull off but that seems almost natural in the hands of Dukakis. “It seems to me that being interested in more people is generally better than being interested in fewer people,” she tells a young man who confesses that he’s attracted to more than one gender.

May Hong (left), Josiah Victoria Garcia, Ashley Park, Christopher Larkin
Photo: Alison Cohn Rosa (Netflix)
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Tales Of The City is most interesting when it touches on the delicate nuances of queerness, the competing opinions between generations or just between a couple with differing ideas. When a stranger asks Margot and Jake about their plans to have children, Margot balks at the idea that they’re being mistaken for a straight couple while Jake just seems happy that he’s passing for a cis man. Tales Of The City features a queer woman engaging in a polyamorous relationship, a gay couple navigating their first threesome, and a woman mulling over her partner’s hope for an open relationship by spitting out, “contrary to everyone else in the 21st century, I love monogamy.” Tales wants to show the spectrum of queerness and relationships, and even when it falls flat or doesn’t commit enough, it’s still pretty admirable.

A highlight in a later episode comes when Michael brings his younger boyfriend Ben (Russian Doll’s Charlie Barnett) to a dinner party amongst Michael’s peers. When Ben calls them out for using racist and transphobic language, one man can’t hide his disdain for Ben’s generation. “Any so-called privilege that we happen to enjoy at this moment was won,” he says, “from a society that didn’t give two shits if we lived or died.” He asserts that Ben can’t even begin to understand what this was like but Ben is a black man; he does understand living in a society that doesn’t care about his life. It’s an intense scene with a lot to say—and talk of intersectionality on television is something to be grateful for—but the thing is, there is so much more to that conversation that needs to happen. Instead of digging in harder, Tales decides to take a step back—a problem that occasionally plagues the 10-episode season. It’s as if the series wants to be considered radical without being radical.

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Still, it’s hard to fault this adaptation for issues such as surface-level skimming, or its cloying and hokey sentimentality, or even its third act insistence on going broader and more ridiculous as it falls into a mystery with a clear-cut villain. These elements are built into its very DNA: Revisiting Maupin’s novels, there are a number of scenes that don’t sting as hard as they could, and a lot of cringe-inducing earnestness. And while the books do provide lovely little stories about queer life, they also occasionally fly into subplots about fleeing the Jonestown massacre or infiltrating a cult of cannibals. Netflix’s Tales takes a similar approach.

Ultimately, the show can be summed in up in an early line from Anna Madrigal, describing people as “flawed, narcissistic, and doin’ our best.” The series has many faults, often gets lost in its own self-indulgence, but it’s easy to admire how much effort they’re putting into making something for a queer audience—both new and old.

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About the author

Pilot Viruet

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Watcher, Degrassi.