Netflix's Tales of the City wisely leaves the San Francisco hate behind

Review: Armistead Maupin's groundbreaking story of 28 Barbary Lane is back and bordering on fantasy (no tech bros here), but it’s still a lovely place to visit.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
5 min read
Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City

Murray Bartlett (left) as Michael Tolliver reconnects with Laura Linney's Mary Ann Singleton. 

Alison Cohn Rosa/Netflix

One of the best lines in Armistead Maupin's original Tales of the City book comes when naive San Francisco newcomer Mary Ann Singleton wonders if she should ditch her new life to go home to Cleveland. Trying to shake her out of her funk, hippie neighbor Mona Ramsey tells her, "Mary Ann … you can't sit around expecting life to be one big Hallmark card. Because no one cares enough to send their very best."

But after a few years, Mary Ann does leave -- not for Ohio, but for New York to pursue a career as a television talk show star. And in Netflix 's new Tales of the City series, which premiered June 7, she comes back to her old West Coast home to reconnect with those she left behind -- ex-husband Brian (Paul Gross returning to the role); resentful daughter Shawna (Ellen Page); old friends; and gracious landlady Anna Madrigal, who gave her that apartment at 28 Barbary Lane. She's bringing plenty of baggage, too, after a failed marriage and a TV dream that devolved into hosting infomercials for a snuggie copycat.

Laura Linney returns to the role of Mary Ann so effortlessly it's almost as if she never left. Of course, as the series is set roughly in the present day, she's arrived in a place that's vastly different from the late 1970s San Francisco of that first book -- a pre-AIDS era of cheap rents, discos and carefree self-discovery. Now housing prices are astronomical, disco is dead and hoodie-clad billionaires walk streets choked with tech buses and electric scooters. If anything, Mona's sound advice is even truer now.

Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City

Olympia Dukakis, now 87, plays Barbary Lane matriarch Anna Madrigal who attends her 90th birthday party in the first episode.

Alison Cohen Rosa/Netflix

Yet the series spends little time exploring the changes to San Francisco. Outside of references to Uber, cryptocurrency and the purging of the city's revolutionary queer history, the characters don't bemoan that San Francisco has lost its soul. Instead, we continue to see the city's spirit of individuality and tolerance and its beauty through sweeping shots. It can feel a bit fanciful at times -- there are no tech bros to be found -- but a cynical view of the city would only be a betrayal of Maupin's most important character, San Francisco itself.

Murray Bartlett of the under-appreciated canceled HBO series Looking steps in as Michael Tolliver, the gay heart of the series, now in his 50s and living with HIV. He brings a warmth and earnestness that fits the character. Same for his much younger boyfriend, Ben (Charlie Barnett of Russian Doll). 

The marvelous Olympia Dukakis is also back as Anna Madrigal, the transgender landlady who first took in Mary Ann years ago and has welcomed a crowd of gay, straight and transgender tenants since then. She's 90 now and still a loving, calm presence. True to Maupin's storytelling, she's harboring a dark secret fleshed out in flashbacks in which transgender actor Jen Richards wonderfully plays a young Anna freshly arrived in San Francisco in the 1960s. (A great scene in that episode shows the 1966 Compton's Cafeteria Riot, a pivotal pre-Stonewall moment in the fight for LGBTQ rights.)

Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City

Garcia, the trans non-binary actor who goes by one name, gives a heartfelt performance as Jake, a trans man coming to terms with the changes in his life.

Alison Cohen Rosa/Netflix

Maupin didn't write the script for the Netflix show, but has said in interviews that he was on the set and in the writer's room. Instead, showrunner Lauren Morelli, a co-executive producer on Netflix's Orange is the New Black, hired an all-LGBTQ writing team. Alan Poul, executive producer of HBO's fantastic Six Feet Under, is an executive producer and directed three episodes.

Though the new Tales takes themes from the eighth book in the Tales series, 2010's Mary in Autumn, some storylines are changed, new characters are added and others you might expect to be there never show up. Fans of Maupin's books and the previous three Tales series may bristle -- one critical plot change about Shawna feels contrived -- but I urge them to put aside any misgivings. Most of the changes enrich the story and give it a welcome diverse cast.

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One of the most compelling subplots involves Jake Rodriguez, a trans man. How his transition has affected his relationships, both with Margot (May Hong), his lesbian girlfriend, and his family, is told in an honest, layered way. The single-named Garcia, the trans non-binary actor who plays Jake, delivers an affecting performance as someone struggling to be both true to himself and honest to those around him. 

On the other hand, I could have done without characters Jennifer (Ashley Park) and Jonathan (Christopher Larkin), an immensely irritating pair of Instagram influencers who feel shoehorned in to give the show a 2010s reference. Their interactions with lesbian socialite DeDe Halcyon (an underused Barbara Garrick, also reprising the role) are painful to watch.

Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City

Transgender actor Jen Richards is a young Anna Madrigal in flashback scenes.

Alison Cohen Rosa/Netflix

The new Tales feels less groundbreaking than the original six-episode 1993 series, but 26 years later that's to be expected. It also ditches some of the soapier elements of Maupin's first books to focus more on relationships -- not only self-absorbed and controlling Mary Ann trying to redeem herself, but also old friends and romantic partners trying to understand each other. 

Importantly, we also get a needed look at a generational divide that mirrors a real one in the LGBTQ community between older members who first battled in the streets for equality and suffered through the worst of the AIDS crisis and younger members arguing to broaden that tolerance for others who are still fighting to be recognized.

Spread over 10 episodes, the series can drag at times and there are a few scenes that had me questioning the point -- particularly one in which sexually fluid Shawna has a tryst with a polyamorous couple. And, sure, the show may seem wrapped in nostalgia. 

But at a time where the very lives of transgender people are being taken on the streets and even seemingly safe marriage equality feels like it could be snatched away with another Supreme Court replacement, I'll gladly spend some time in this comforting world. San Francisco doesn't always send its very best, but it's lovely to be reminded of why I, like so many others, moved here as a young gay person decades ago to find love, community and a life of my own.

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