TV Review: Tales of the City (2019)


Title Tales of the City
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 4
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

25 years ago, my sister introduced me to the PBS miniseries Tales of the City, which proved to be an eye-opening experiencing of seeing the intertwined lives of a group of people in San Francisco in the period of Gay Liberation and Sexual Revolution of the 1970s.  A couple more miniseries were made for a cable channel that I never saw, but I did end up reading the Tales of the City books by Armistead Maupin multiple times.  Maupin began Tales of the City as a newspaper column in 1974 and then compiled the stories into five novels through the 1970s and 1980s.  Maupin tied up the series with an original novel in 1989, but a couple of decades later he returned to the characters with three new novels published between 2007 and 2014.

And now Tales of the City returns to tv with a Netflix miniseries that draws on both the recent novels and the  1993 miniseries, with additional new characters and plots.  The story is set in the present day which creates a big cognitive roadblock for me as a Tales of the City fan.  The characters should have aged 40+ years since 1976, but the actors playing them have only aged 25 years and thus much of their backstories don’t add up.  With a large part of the story focusing on generational differences, we have the original Boomer characters and the new Millenial characters, but Generation X is completely erased (except, of course, that Gen X actors are playing the Boomers).

Leaving that aside, this version of Tales of the City viewed on its own is an excellent work of television.  In additon to the generational conflicts, the show focuses on truth, family, forgiveness, and how gentrification disrupts community and history.  LGBTQ actors are cast to play LGBTQ characters and the new cast brings a greater racial diversity.

Olympia Dukakis returns as Anna Madrigal, one of the great characters of literature and film.  Under threat of blackmail, Anna decides to sell her Barbary Lane apartment building.  A flashback episode to 1966 depicts Anna’s arrival in San Francisco and a shocking secret.  Young Anna is portrayed magnificently by Jen Richards, who is actually a transgender woman unlike Dukakis.

Laura Linney returns as Mary Ann Singleton.  Her character returns to San Francisco after 20 years to attend Anna’s 90th birthday party, and decides to stay when she realizes how much she misses it as her home.  Mary Ann dives into solving the mystery of why Anna is selling Barbary Lane. Initially, her character is off-putting, a pushy and privileged white woman from Connecticut, but over the course of the series she softens back into the Mary Ann we loved.

Murray Bartlett joins the cast as Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, and despite being way too young to play Michael, he does a great job inhabiting the character and has great chemistry with the other actors as if he’d been there all along.  Michael is dealing with a much younger boyfriend Ben (inspired by, but different from a character in the books and played by Charlie Barnett), and the return of an old lover who’d abandoned him, Harrison (Matthew Risch playing a character who as nothing in common with Michael’s former book boyfriends, Jon and Thack).

Paul Gross returns as Brian Hawkins, Mary Ann’s ex-husband, who raised his adoptive daughter as a single father and runs a garden nursery with Michael.  He is looking to get back in the dating game but keeps meeting up with women who remind him of Mary Ann.  He also attempts a relationship with his best friend Wren (played by Michelle Buteau, a really great character inspired by a book character of the same name, who should have had a bigger part).

The new, younger characters are also great.  Ellen Page plays Brian’s adoptive daughter Shawna, who is unaware that she was adopted and resents Mary Ann for leaving her behind (this was definitely NOT a plot in the books).  She’s pansexual and works for a radical cooperative burlesque bar that is central to many scenes of the series. And since Page is playing a character who is the biological child of a character played by Parker Posey, I now need to see Page and Posey together in a movie.

Other Barbary Lane residents include transgender man Jake Rodriguez (Garcia) and his partner Margot Park (May Hong).  Jake is realizing he is now attracted to men, while Margot regrets losing her lesbian identity from before Jake’s transition, leading to tension and eventual breakup.  Jake is a character from the newer books but characterized somewhat differently here, including having him be of Latinx heritage, while Margot is a characer new to the miniseries.

The other residents of Barbary Lane are a twin siblings Jennifer (Ashley Park) and Jonathan (Christopher Larkin) who dedicate their lives to performance art in hopes of becoming successful Instagram influencers.  Unfortunately, most of their plot is cliched Millenial sterotypes, although they are good comic relief.  They also are tied in with another returning character, DeDe Halcyon Day (Barbara Garrick), a wealthy socialite delighted to have young people make use of her mansion for their performance parties.

One frustrating element is that when Anna’s blackmailer is revealed, they are portrayed as a cartoon villain, ruining what I thought had been an intersting, nuanced character up that point.  Barring that, Tales of the City is a touching, funny, and thoughtful story and a  worthy addition to the ouevre.

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