When Armistead Maupin began writing Tales of the City — his serialized, sudsy stories about life in San Francisco in the late Seventies — the central character was a very naive, very straight Midwestern girl, Mary Ann Singleton. Mary Ann served as a point-of-entry figure for readers unversed in queer fiction, just as Laura Linney’s portrayal of Mary Ann did the same in 1993’s acclaimed PBS adaptation of the first Tales book. (Two additional miniseries were produced for Showtime over the next decade, with diminishing returns.)
The times, they have changed — for both Mary Ann and for LGBTQ stories in general. The community has evolved greatly, as have depictions of them on the page and screen. Mary Ann is still an important part of Netflix’s 10-episode Tales sequel series, from Orange Is the New Black writer Lauren Morelli. But in a sign of how far we’ve come in the relative prominence and variety of queer stories on television, this new Tales largely treats her as the annoying (if usually well-meaning) interloper in everyone else’s story. (She is to this show what Piper is to Orange.)
The new series splits its allegiance between characters old and new. Olympia Dukakis is back as Anna Madrigal, the trans landlady of the colorful rooming house on Barbary Lane so central to the action. After sitting out the Showtime sequels, Paul Gross (now sporting ghost-white hair and jet-black eyebrows that combine to make him resemble Sam the Eagle) reprises his role as Mary Ann’s promiscuous ex Brian, while Looking’s Murray Bartlett becomes the latest actor to play Mary Ann’s best friend Michael (a.k.a. Mouse), who taught her so much about gay culture back in the day. And Barbara Garrick is a treat once again as eccentric heiress DeDe Halcyon, who’s been through many evolutions since we last saw her.
When a new friend asks if DeDe is queer, she replies — in a line neatly summing up the difference in eras(*) — “Thirty years in San Francisco, I still have no idea what that word means. It’s like the price of oil: changes every day.”
(*) It’s best not to think too much about dates and ages. The original miniseries took place in 1976, and this one is set in the present day, but Mary Ann, Brian and Michael are all too young here to have aged 43 years in the interim.
Barbary Lane these days, though, is mostly home to a new generation. Brian and Mary Ann’s adopted daughter Shawna (Ellen Page) is tending bar and struggling to figure out what to do with her life. (She also still thinks these are her biological parents, in one of many melodramatic plot devices that do Maupin proud.) Jake (Josiah Victoria Garcia) and Margot (May Hong), meanwhile, are trying to redefine their relationship in the wake of his gender transition. (In a sign of how quickly the culture can evolve, Margot admits to a friend that she misses being part of a lesbian couple, and that she grew up dreaming that she’d have a wife and kids.) Michael still lives in the rooming house, but he spends a lot of time with his younger boyfriend Ben (Charlie Barnett from Russian Doll). And a newcomer, Claire (Zosia Mamet), turns up hoping to make a documentary about Anna and the transformation of the city over the last 50 years.
Servicing multiple generations — of both characters and viewers — proves tricky for Morelli and her collaborators. The new episodes demand a greater recall of details from the original stories than I admit I still had, despite having read all the books and seen all three minis. (I had to keep several Wikipedia tabs open throughout my binge just to follow things like Shawna’s origin story.) Michael and Ben’s relationship neatly bridges the gap between old and new — there’s a great scene where Ben argues with a roomful of Michael’s peers about their casual use of derogatory terms like “tranny,” while they guilt him for not being around while their friends were dying during the AIDS crisis — but often the different sets of characters feel too disconnected from each other. And the show’s heart ultimately seems a bit more into catching up with the original group than in exploring the same territory through fresh eyes.
But Tales could be messy and uneven back in the day, too. The parts that work outweigh the parts that don’t, then and now. An arc this time out about someone blackmailing Anna into giving away the house has an utterly cartoonish payoff, for instance. But that story also provides an excuse to do an episode-length flashback about Anna (played by Jen Richards) arriving in San Francisco as a 40-year-old just beginning her transition, and able to pass in a way that many members of the city’s burgeoning trans community at the time can’t. A big stylistic departure from the series’ usual soap opera structure, it’s easily the revival’s highlight.
But even as I rolled my eyes or scratched my head at various developments, the performances and the optimistic (and very Maupin) spirit buoyed me through the whole thing. Turning Mary Ann into everyone’s most exhausting friend allows Linney to deploy her underrated comic chops. And the arc of her relationships with Shawna, Brian, Michael and Anna gradually restores her humanity without letting her overwhelm everyone else’s stories. Even close to Anna Madrigal’s 90 years in this, Dukakis has the gravity and warmth necessary to explain what that address means to its residents (and its fans), and she has a great rapport with Victor Garber as a potentially shady new friend.
And there’s a hopefulness to the endeavor that feels as needed now as it was when the original Tales appeared in written and then televised form. For all the progress that’s been made over the years, these feel like extremely precarious times to be LGBTQ (and even more to be queer and non-white, as most of the show’s new characters are). The revival is primarily about the stories of these characters, but there’s a sense throughout that things have gotten easier in some ways and harder in others. But everyone keeps hustling, keeps trying to improve things for themselves and their loved ones, and that attitude becomes infectious.
“Beautiful things should come with beautiful endings,” Anna declares at one point. The new Tales is imperfect, but it’s beautiful enough in spots to qualify.
Tales of the City debuts June 7th on Netflix. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.
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