TV Review: ‘Tales of the City’ Starts a Cross-Generational Queer Conversation

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There has been terrific progress in LGBTQ+ rights over the years, even though there’s still so far to go. Before companies could fire you for being gay. Today, certain states are still allowed to do so, but at least any corporation with a social presence sports a rainbow flag in their logo. Writer Armistead Maupin’s writings on queer life date back to their 1976 column in “San Francisco Chronicle.” From there, his writings were assembled and published as a novel entitled “Tales of the City.” This immensely popular work spawned eight additional books, three miniseries in the 90s and early 00s. Netflix’s latest batch of episodes makes it four miniseries total. “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City” reimagines its classic characters plopped in a post “it gets better” world with some sharp insights of intergenerational queer communities.

Nine books and three miniseries seems like a lot of content to consume to prepare for Netflix’s latest rendition. Unfortunately, the show hits the ground running and offers little context for the uninitiated. Still, the show is well-worth reading up on in order to get full enjoyment. “Tales of the City” centers around the legendary 28 Barbary Lane, a mecca of queer life presided on by the caftan transgender goddess Anna Magridal (Olympia Dukakis, reprising her role). We return to Barbary Lane with Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), who attends Anna’s 90th birthday, fuddy duddy new husband in tow. Upon her return, she discovers old friends, such as Mouse (Murray Bartlett), an ex-husband, Brian (Paul Gross), and the daughter she left behind, Shawna (Ellen Page).

Mary Ann’s family antics are plenty fun, but provide a clunky entryway for a story of diversity within the queer community. The sudsy family drama of a cis white woman trying to win back the hearts of those she left behind feels less compelling than the rest of the show. Though Shawna thinks of Mary Ann as her absentee mother, Shawna is actually the biological daughter of Mary Ann’s late friend Connie Bradshaw (Parker Posey in the previous miniseries). Mary Ann feels compelled to reveal the truth and build a relationship with Mary Ann, though Brian doesn’t want the truth out. Mostly, this plot exists as an excuse for Linney to delightfully wander in and out of scenes. It becomes a running joke that she’s almost this annoying straight friend to the queers who constantly pops her head in at inopportune times.

Shawna is a proud bisexual woman, though traditional labels don’t seem like her thing. Other than hookups with a wealth of pretty people, Shawna’s mommy issues aren’t deep or interesting enough to warrant the screen-time they are given. Ellen Page feels earnestly in love with the character she portrays, particularly in her scenes with Olympia Dukakis. Yet, there are better things happening elsewhere.

For all the nostalgia placed on the returning players, the new characters are what make the show interesting. Two of the youngest tenants of 28 Barbary Lane are Jake (Josiah Victoria Garcia) and Margot (May Hong). Jake has recently transitioned and finds himself more attracted to men than he was pre-transition. Meanwhile, Margot misses her dream lesbian relationship. There’s an immense amount of love between the both of them. The show paints Jake’s transition as a chance for both of them to seek the fully actualized versions of themselves. It’s a complex, interesting look at a trans relationship that isn’t regularly seen on TV. The show sparks to life whenever they are on screen.

The bridge between the old characters and new comes with Mouse’s relationship with Ben (Charlie Barnett), a much younger man. Though very much in love, their eras and lifestyles come into conflict quite often. Mouse’s life hasn’t changed much since we last left him. He still lives on Barbary Lane and displays the same carefree lackadaisical attitude. As things become more serious with Ben, Mouse must make concessions and compromises for the first time in a while. Ben also doesn’t always see eye to eye with Mouse and his generation’s attitudes. A particular highlight involves both men attending a dinner party filled with gay men of Mouse’s age. As they throw around outdated and hurtful slurs, particularly aimed at the trans community, Ben becomes offended. This storyline best exemplifies the cross-generation conversation taking place in Netflix’s “Tales of the City.”

The dichotomy of progress and the old guard is most literally present in Anna Madrigal. Dukakis continues to embody warmness and wisdom as the matriarch of misfits. Yet, by today’s standards, the progressive hairs on my arms raise at the casting of a cis actress in a trans role. Granted, Dukakis is reprising a role she originated nearly thirty years ago. However, once trans actress Jen Kirkman takes on the role in flashbacks, the character truly comes alive. Episode eight takes place entirely in the 60s upon Anna’s arrival in San Francisco. The show places us in the more hostile environment than the loud and proud world of 2019 San Francisco. Anna’s sunny demeanor deals with faithfulness to her community or surviving in a world where cops arrested, beat or were part of the death of members of the transgender community.

Late in the series, a major character wonders if people can be both a “wise magnanimous fairy godmother” and a “spineless liar.” Like any spectrum, the series concludes that there is room for both in every character. The show is best when it allows us to see the beauty and warts of its many characters. Younger people are more attuned to people’s preferences and go out of their way to fight for political correctness. Older generations of queer people wear the scars of AIDS and a world where they had to fight harder for a seat at the table. People exist on different planes and the show makes no apologies for what makes these communities prickly and vibrant.

“I’ve spent the majority of my life coming out,” another character remarks at one point. The show, and even the IP, feels like its always coming out too. It shapes, morphs and adapts to changing times, further introspection and maybe a bit more weed. Art should reflect the time in which it was created. Great art speaks to people regardless of time. Parts of this latest “Tales of the City” won’t age well. Some terminology and points of view will fall out of vogue or seem outright aggressive. Yet, the queer community needs pieces like this that represent the many definitions and colors of what it means to be LGBTQ+. Celebrate pride with “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.”

“Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City” premieres on Netflix on Friday, June 7th. 

GRADE: (★★½)

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