Netflix’s ‘Tales of the City’ Revival Wallows in Nostalgia for the Present
I was at lunch with a friend last week and the conversation “What are you watching?” came up, because that’s the only conversation allowed by law anymore.
“There’s a new season of Tales of the City on Netflix,” I said.
Unlike most people of taste, who’ve responded to that sentence with a scrunched-up nose that indicates “if it’s not Fleabag, I’m not interested,” at least this guy had heard of the property.
“That’s that book that everyone had on their shelves in the 90s but no one read,” he said.
I think some people read it, boss. In fact, I read that Tales Of The City, and More Tales Of The City, and Further Tales Of The City. I loved those books. While I wasn’t under the illusion that Armistead Maupin was Christopher Isherwood, or James Baldwin, or Oscar Wilde, his books did provide a fun and gentle introduction to urban gay life for me, a straight suburban boy living in a city for the first time.
When you go back and look at Maupin’s work now, it seems almost quaint, but in its time, it was fairly radical. He actually wrote the stories in his first books as a newspaper serial, which explains the corny, pseudo-Dickensian plotting. But it also explains why the books feel so real and well-observed. He chronicled the unfurling of gay liberation in the city that movement came to define. When Maupin revealed that his most wicked creation, the freewheeling landlady Anna Madrigal, was a transsexual, it was legitimately shocking. Although, in retrospect, he committed a crime against literature by making her name an anagram for “A Man and a Girl.”
The Original Quality Television
When PBS adapted in the original Tales Of The City in 1993, you didn’t see a lot of gay characters on TV or in the movies. And you certainly never saw gay life celebrated or treated as normal. Because the show featured casual sex, drug use, and, the worst sin of all, gay life as something to be celebrated, the forces of evil threatened to cut off PBS’ funding. As a result, PBS decided not to produce a sequel, forcing it into the at-the-time relative broadcasting ghetto of Showtime.
It’s hard to imagine the new Tales Of The City, now airing on Netflix, raising such a fuss. Though the series features several graphic gay sex scenes and transgendered characters who are allowed to use whatever bathroom they choose, it slots neatly into the current entertainment landscape. It will blow away like one of Anna Madrigal’s vintage scarves on the wind.
The Gilded Streets of San Francisco
The original Tales Of The City wafted along on a wisp of marijuana smoke and bohemian vibes. But the books took on a darker hue as the 1980s. Our idealistic lead, the gee-whiz Midwestern gal Mary Ann Singleton, became a nightmarish self-absorbed yuppie careerist. The main gay character, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, contracted HIV, and the world bulldozed away San Francisco’s glory days.
As the new series begins, Anna Madrigal still owns her mythical Shangri-La of tolerance, the home and apartment complex at 28 Barbary Lane. She houses a mostly-new group of tenants, who exist all across the ethnic and LGBTQ+ spectrum. Mary Ann shows up in town for Madrigal’s 90th birthday party, and proceeds to “fall in love with the city” all over again, flitting around like a rich twit and annoying everyone she sees.
Laura Linney reprises her role as Mary Ann from the original series, and so does Olympia Dukakis as Madrigal. Several other familiar faces are about as well. But this new series lives and dies on the dubious charisma of its new central character “Shawna,” Mary Ann’s daughter, played monochromatically by Ellen Page.
Shawna ostensibly works as a freelance writer, but we mostly just see her slouching around town in her canvas baseball hat, kissing everybody and laconically running selfless errands so we can see what a good person she is. She hooks up with an incredibly annoying, self-absorbed married couple and has sex and long, boring conversations about “identity” with them.
All this might have made sense in the 1970s Tales of the City, but this is modern San Francisco, where the class war is in full swing. Mouse is living healthily with HIV, very of-the-moment, but he also runs across an old flame who’s moved back to town to “flip houses.” Girl, house-flipping is for Waco. Unless you’re a Russian oligarch or a Twitter executive, you’re not flipping shit in the Bay.
In general, no one seems to work in Tales of the City. Mouse and Mary Ann’s ex-husband Brian own an urban gardening center called “Plant Parenthood,” but the extent of their labor appears to be spritzing leaves with water. At one point, Mary Ann is in an Uber and a guy knocks on the window begging for money. He’s holding a sign that reads “My Wife Had A Better Attorney.” She gives him some bills and says she finds him “charming.” Hilarious, especially in a state where divorce means a 50-50 split.
Turn the Page
Our youth-y cast doesn’t fare much better. A “Twinsexual” brother-and-sister performance art duo occupies one apartment at Barbary Lane. They spend their time getting high, “influencing”, and writing a song whose chorus goes “identity, it’s sticky.” Very bad. Another character, in late transition from female to male, has a sweet but boring storyline, punctuated by endlessly dull and whiny midnight conversations with his girlfriend.
Meanwhile, Ellen Page plays footsie with Zosia Mamet, a too-cool-for-school filmmaker who vaguely notices that cryptocurrency businesses are replacing ratty old gay bars. But then every other line she looks at her watch and, for plot convenience’s sake, says, “I gotta go.”
At one point, Mamet says to Page, as they stand on the site of a historical gay-lib location, “If it ain’t in print, it ain’t real, that’s the world we’re living in.”
Page responds, “We never think of old people as people who did real things like knocked back shots with their friends or, well, conspired against oppression.”
Then Mamet lies down on the ground.
“Watcha doin’?” Page says.
“Feeling the vibes of fiery resistance.”
Note: Mamet’s father did not write this script.
On the Other Hand
For seemingly hours, even decades, the new Tales Of The City wallows in overlong conversations about “being seen” and finding yourself. The actors, other than an amped-up Linney, deliver their lines in a minor key, discovering themselves through mumbling and flat, meaningful glances. They live their free lives in a forever shrug. Though there is a plot if you care enough to follow it, the show lacks the narrative enthusiasm of other recent programs equally concerned with identity and transformation, like GLOW, the first couple of seasons of Orange Is The New Black, or even the rebooted Queer Eye. Tales has nothing to offer over any of those.
However, occasionally and surprisingly, the series sparks to life. In the fourth episode, which seems like it’s going to drag on forever, Mouse and his boyfriend, a cute but boring 28-year-old guy named Ben, go to a fancy gay dinner party. Ben gets into a surprising and vicious argument with a bunch of old rich queens. They accuse him of not respecting their history and he calls them transphobic and racist. The scene is sharp and energetic and tensely acted. But then all the characters disappear except for Ben, who has more graphic sex with Michael.
After several more hours of elliptical conversations in dark apartments, the series suddenly flashes back to mid-1960s San Francisco, where a freshly-minted Anna Madrigal, played with great empathy and intelligence by Jen Richards, arrives off the Greyhound from Minneapolis. She abandons her family and seeks a new life in the big city, like a transgendered Mary Richards working at City Lights Bookstore.
This episode functions like a mini-movie, featuring characters not seen before or since, but with tremendous emotional heft and weight. It has clear conflict, high drama, and zero flashback tricks, just a classic tale about a forgotten episode in queer history, told clearly and without illusions.
When Tales of the City looks back, it’s good, even great. But it can’t see its present with nearly that much clarity. Therein lies this particular show’s greatest irony. It understands the past, but loses the present in sentiment and nostalgia.