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In the newest installment of cult classic series Tales of the City, a young woman in a shag mullet heaves a sheet cake up San Francisco’s steep Russian Hill with her pompadour-coiffed trans boyfriend. Perturbed, Margot (May Hong) recounts her concern that a well-meaning stranger in the bakery inquired if she and Jake (Josiah Victoria Garcia) have kids. “She thought we were straight, Jake!” Her paramour doesn’t seem to mind, so she accuses him of being excited that he passed for a cis man. “A couple of queers walk down the street and no one knows it — are they still queer?” she retorts. The moment becomes a tableau of a stagey series that still wants to see itself as the radical and transgressive voice it once was.
That a 25-year-old cult series ended up rebooted by a cultural Pac-Man like Netflix shouldn’t come as a surprise. But Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City isn’t just another dead show Netflix plucked from the TV slush pile for refurbishment. The groundbreaking series exploring the sprawling, soap operatic intrigues of the eccentric residents living in a San Francisco apartment complex was, in fact, one of the original network-hoppers: First airing as a miniseries on Channel 4 in the U.K. in 1993, the series came to PBS in the U.S. a year later, then got resurrected by Showtime for additional micro-seasons in 1998 and 2001. The fourth chapter will air on Netflix in June, and, at this rate, I’m sure the next go-around 20 years from now is going to beam directly into your cranium from, say, the VR streaming arm of Costco Wholesale Corporation. Change with the times, man.
Or not. Having seen the poignant but flavorless first episode of the newest iteration, I can say that it seems very little has changed on 28 Barbary Lane, the show’s residential oasis located in San Fran’s now-tony Russian Hill neighborhood. Sure, in 2019 its young inhabitants may self-consciously navigate gender, queerness and trans identities openly, or experiment with the heady waters of social media influencing for profit, but the series, as stilted and theatrical as ever, remains a time capsule of the freewheeling San Francisco come and gone.
In the original pilot, protagonist Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) attends a dinner party hosted by her ethereal landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) and watches former hippies reminisce about their glory days in 1967. While no one in the newest episode lionizes the early ’90s directly, the show itself is so wistful for a time before the tech bros and trustafarians displaced the “freaks” that the story appears to be set in a plasticine fantasyland San Francisco that’s somehow still the playground of marginalized people who could never afford to live there today. As the camera swoops around the complex for the first time in 18 years and the heartfelt music swells, reintroducing the audience to this nourishing sanctuary while the young folks prepare for a grand birthday party, you might imagine a children’s TV show theme song where kids construct their own magical playhouse. I half expected the marijuana bushes to break into song.
Tales of the City, based on Armistead Maupin’s iconic 1970s-set novels, followed the travails of saltless audience proxy Mary Ann Singleton, a prim, blonde twenty-something who escapes Ohio and finds family in her assorted group of neighbors at Barbary Lane, each of whom followed their own winding path into the maternal embrace of weed-growing trans grand dame Anna. (“If you’re going to be a degenerate, you might as well be a lady about it,” the landlady declares in the original miniseries.) Awash in sex, drug use, nudity and LGBTQ identity well before shows like Queer as Folk and The L Word premiered, Tales of the City was one of the first series to normalize queer culture. Now, 20 years after Mary Ann pursued her TV career to the Northeast, she returns to San Francisco for the first time in two decades, accompanied by her new husband, to celebrate Anna’s 90th birthday and reconnect with those she left behind.
These folks include her gay everyman BFF, Michael (Murray Bartlett), now dating a much younger man; her fiery ex-husband, Brian (Paul Gross), still furious with her for abandoning their budding family; and grown “daughter” Shawna (Ellen Page), a scrappy young queer woman who doesn’t know she was adopted. Shawna still lives at Barbary Lane, and her neighbors include likeable queer couple Jake (Garcia) and Margot (May Hong) — wrestling, much like the show itself, with their identities in a world where queerness is now more mainstream — and twins Jonathan (Christopher Larkin) and Jennifer (Ashley Park), a pair of cartoonish Millennial dumb-dumbs who scheme to come up with rent money by becoming Instagram stars (a painful storyline that makes the show feel far stodgier and more out of touch than it should).
Mary Ann is still the irritating stiff she always was, bubbling with insecurity over the empty she life she currently leads as an Infomercial hawker in Connecticut. (She’s behind a line of ugly cloaks branded The Bloodie. “It’s a Bloodie-good blanket!” she squeals, depressingly.) Linney has always played Mary Ann with brash farm-girl sturdiness, which makes her earnestness that much more grating. Dukakis, as regal and spirited as ever, still charms as Anna, who faces continuous interrogation into her past. Page, playing the most interesting new character, seems a bit too old to be a post-teen with mommy issues. (“Adult” is too strong a word for disaffected Shawna, who says she’s 25 but looks and acts more like she’s 15.)
The original series, as fascinatingly gossipy as it was, always felt inorganic — the affected dialogue too wink-wink, the hammy acting and production design more appropriate for the stage — a trend that continues in the new version. (“Do you think irony exists on the internet?” one character hyuk-hyuks to another.) 28 Barbary Lane remains a haven in a city experiencing dystopian levels of mass gentrification, homelessness, racial segregation and social displacement. (You know the counterculture is in trouble when Silicon Valley becomes the biggest presence at Burning Man.)
Everyone needs their nostalgia (it’s why I cling so furiously to The Conners, for example). And Tales of the City is certainly a snapshot of a place in time. That place and time, however, is not the San Francisco of 2019.
Cast: Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Ellen Page, Murray Bartlett, Paul Gross, Josiah Victoria Garcia, May Hong, Charlie Barnett, Zosia Mamet, Ashley Park, Christopher Larkin
Executive producers: Lauren Morelli, Armistead Maupin, Laura Linney, Alan Poul, Andrew Stearn, Liza Chasin, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Premieres: Friday, June 7 (Netflix)
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