Tales of the City makes its Netflix debut

By Hans Pedersen

If you’ve never seen a 90-year-old trans woman smoking a joint, you’re missing out on a chance to revisit a beloved classic of LGBTQ literature and TV history.

Characters like weed-smoking trans senior citizen Mrs. Anna Madrigal or blissfully insecure Michael “Mouse” Tolliver were enshrined in LGBTQ literature more than forty years ago — and now they’re receiving a delightful re-boot.  

Netflix is offering a new generation the chance to discover the legacy of 28 Barbary Lane.  While the situations are inspired by Armistead Maupin’s later books — the seventh, eighth and ninth in the series — this new adaptation also features brand-new stories.  A horde of LGBTQ writers crafted the series’ fourth TV installment with Maupin’s guidance, bringing new twists to the material from those tomes.

Originating first as a newspaper column, Tales of the City was adapted into a series of books, the first three of which were adapted into mini-series for PBS and later Showtime.

The new Tales glides along gracefully, easing us back into the characters lives almost effortlessly.  For fans of the original, there are enough references to characters and events to satisfy Barbaryphiles’ yearning for nostalgia.  But the series remains accessible for the uninitiated.  (If you haven’t had a joint taped to your door by Mrs. Madrigal, one of her trademark moves, no worries, you can always revisit the original series on iTunes or Acorn TV.).

Laura Linney returns to a role she was born to play, Mary Ann Singleton, and Olympia Dukakis is a sheer joy in her role as now-90-year-old Anna Madrigal.  Refreshingly, the creative team has cast trans actress Jen Richards as a young Anna Madrigal in a flashback sequence, along with Daniela Vega as Isela, a trans woman battling for the rights of the trans community.  (The casting moves are a notable response to criticism that the original “Tales of the City” featured a cis woman in a trans role.)

We quickly learn Mary Ann has not been back to see everyone at Barbary Lane after fleeing San Francisco for a TV career back east more than twenty years ago, and now she’s returning to San Francisco for Mrs. Madrigal’s 90th birthday.  

For fans of the series, seeing Mary Ann climbing up the wooden steps of Barbary Lane, with her befuddled, stuffed-shirt husband in tow, it’s easy to get the tingles.  In a story central to the rebooted series, Mary Ann must face the music more than twenty years after abandoning her brooding husband Brian and their daughter Shawna. 

Ellen Page is an inspired choice as Shawna, who works as a bartender at a burlesque performance space; she’s blunt and honest, particularly about Mary Ann, whom she doesn’t consider a mom.  “She doesn’t mean anything to me and I’m sick and tired of people telling me I should,” she blurts out angrily.  But Shawna has a misconception about who her biological mom is, and nobody has corrected her.  She’s bisexual and, while couples turn her on, she develops an attraction to a documentary filmmaker named Claire (played by Zozia Mamet).

Murray Bartlett (Looking) tackles the role of Michael “Mouse” Tolliver who’s living at Barbary Lane in this incarnation of the stories.  His boyfriend Ben (Charlie Barnett) is 25 years younger than him, but this hot couple also demonstrates the challenges of a mixed HIV-status relationship and the clashes between two generations of gay men.  In one of the more surprising scenes, Michael brings Ben to an upscale dinner party, resulting in a clash between younger and older generations, an outburst that speaks volumes about schisms in the LGTBQ community today.  

Paul Gross returns as surly, wisecracking ex, Brian (a role he originated in 1994). The former ladies man is now a recovering single dad trying to get into the digital dating scene with help from his pal Wren, a character from Maupin’s later books, played spot-on by Michelle Buteau.

Rounding out the wonderfully diverse crowd are Garcia, a non-binary actor who plays trans man Jake Rodriguez, a Barbary Lane resident who lives with his girlfriend Margot (May Hong).  Jake discovers that as he transitioned, he has become more attracted to men, leaving Margot with some decisions to make.

Mrs. Madrigal ultimately makes a stunning announcement at the end of the second episode that is expected to change the trajectory of the residents’ lives forever.  Her mystery is a satisfying slow-burn, as Mary Ann must enlist several characters help to figure out the people involved in the senior citizen’s secret.

Directors like Stacie Passon (Concussion), who identifies as lesbian, and Sydney Freeland, who identifies as trans, bring their skills and insight into the episodes they direct.  While there are fewer Dickensian intersections of characters than the original three miniseries — the absence of these fun contrivances actually makes the new Tales all the more believable and, well, relatable.

The new take on a beloved classic may take a bit of adjusting, since it’s less Charles Dickens, more Virginia Woolf.  But it works.

The odd thing about this reboot is it’s almost anti-nostalgic fast-forward to 2018: the entire “Tales” timeline gets scooted up about eight or nine years to make it all relevant.  You may start wondering in which year did Mary Ann arrive at Barbary Lane?  Don’t.  Best to just enjoy the stories and forget the math or the mental cartwheels will exhaust you. It’s a sheer delight to see these characters and stories come to life again in this lovely ode to modern day San Francisco: seeing their fog-shrouded silhouettes in the courtyard, you know you have found a home.  Here’s hoping the new Tales opens the door to even more storytellers. just as the original “Tales” did 25 years ago.