TV Review: Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City ★★★★★

Netflix have answered my little queer prayers by taking us back to 28 Barbary Lane with a ten episode new Limited Series Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which streams globally from today Friday 7th June 2019.

It’s been 25 years since the first Tales TV adaption set in Seventies San Francisco and 18 years we since last saw Maupin’s much beloved characters Mouse, Mary Ann Singleton and Mrs Madrigal on our TV screens with Further Tales. Maupin has said that he considers the previous three TV adaptations of his work to be the definitive versions of Tales of the City, which started out as a long running daily serial in The San Francisco Chronicle, before novelised anthologies were published, followed by several original Tales books which were completed by The Days of Anna Madrigal, the ninth book in the series.

Coinciding with Pride Month, this new screen version of Tales, set in present day San Francisco, takes Maupin’s characters and creates a new story for them. Maupin himself was always present in the show’s all-queer writers’ room, led by showrunner Lauren Morelli (Orange is the New Black) and each episode was helmed by an LGBTQ director.

In the later books landlady Mrs Madrigal (once again played here by Olympia Dukakis) has left Barbary Lane, but wisely this TV incarnation choses to keep her there as the majestic matriarch celebrates her 90th birthday. This provides a compelling reason for Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) to return to San Francisco for the first time after a decades long absence. I had goosebumps and a beaming smile on my face as the now middle aged Mary Ann takes in the beautiful skyline and old haunts such as the once cruisey Safeway supermarket where she first met Mouse. It’s nostalgic and a little emotional to be back in this world after all these years.

Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver (Murray Bartlett) who has “prevailed over the plague” as he puts it still calls Barbary Lane home (again unlike the later novels). Now 54, Mouse has been dating a younger man involved in the city’s dominant tech scene, Ben Marshall (Charlie Barnett) for six months. The series explores the intergenerational dynamics of their relationship as well as the fact that Michael is HIV positive and Ben is negative and what that means for their sex life. Intimate moments between gay characters back in the Nineties when the original show aired were rare, groundbreaking and controversial, now the sight of LGBTQ+ sex on screen might seem less significant, but here it’s compelling, character driven and helps develop the narrative.

As with the current Star Wars trilogy, there’s a sense that the original Tales characters are there as a connection to the past, with the younger Barbary Lane residents being introduced as the next generation, with any future seasons likely to focus more on them.

The new residents comprise a diverse range of characters covering the LGBTQ+ spectrum including a trans man Jake Rodriguez (Garcia) who lives with his girlfriend Margot Park (May Hong) and is beginning to explore his newfound interest in men. Residing in the apartment on the roof are the millennial Asian American twins Jennifer and Jonathan Winter (Ashley Park and Christopher Larkin) who are desperately trying to make a name for themselves and a fast buck to pay their rent via instagram fame.

The final apartment in the building is inhabited by Shawna (brilliantly played by Ellen Page), now in her twenties, who was left in the care of Mary Ann and Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross) as a baby. Discovering something that rocks her world, Shawna goes on a journey both psychological and literal to come to terms with the truth. Page has some captivating scenes opposite Laura Linney and Shawna’s potential love interest Claire (Zosia Mamet), who’s making a documentary about the loss of queer spaces in San Francisco.

Barbary Lane was always at the beating heart of Tales and looks more magical and enticing than ever, but this new series also introduces us to another alluring safe space, Body Politic a queer burlesque co-op bar where Shawna works for the flamboyantly fierce and fabulous manager played by Bob the Drag Queen. As the series acknowledges a changing San Francisco, with the closure of LGBTQ spaces, gentrification, and the arrival of tech millionaires meaning hiked rents (one character can only afford to rent a bathtub in the city) Body Politic feels particularly special.

In one powerful sequence we see a diverse group of flag waving (literally) LGBTQ patrons leave the safe space they’ve created of Body Politic and take to the streets to make a stand for what they believe in. Meanwhile in a flashback episode we see trans women fight back against police in a depiction of a real incident that occurred in San Francisco in 1966, the Compton’s Cafeteria riot. The episode, my favourite in the new series, directed by Alan Poul, features some stunning Sixties period detail and develops a intriguing backstory with fantastic performances by Jen Richards as a younger Anna Madrigal, alongside A Fantastic Woman’s Daniela Vega as a fellow trans woman struggling against a dangerously hostile environment.

As with all incarnations of Tales there’s a mystery to be solved that runs through the series, something that harks back to its origins as a newspaper column that required a daily cliffhanger. The puzzle here is effective enough and kept this viewer actively guessing and suspecting along with sleuth Mary Ann.

What Tales ultimately provides us with is a warm embrace during these dark days under a regressive US administration, and threats to LGBTQ people in many parts of the world. Here’s a vision of an LGBTQ+ community that’s within our reach and a series that celebrates humanity through the warm lens of Armistead Maupin’s world.

All ten episodes of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City are on Netflix from today Friday 7th June 2019. Head to Netlifx.com/TalesoftheCity for all the details and to watch the series.

By James Kleinmann

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