Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City

It’s been 18 years since Tales of the City was on screen.

Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco melodrama, based on his novels, first hit screens in 1993. It was an alluring into the queer ghetto of the city, centering around the residents of Barbary Lane, tenants of landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis).

The loves and lives of Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), Mouse (Marcus D’Amico), Brian (Paul Gross), Dede (Barbara Garrick), Dr. Jon (William Campbell), Connie (Parker Posey) and Beauchamp (Thomas Gibson) were less soapy than Melrose Place and less political than Queer as Folk. But they still broke rules at a time when HIV / AIDS was a sensationalist subject in the media.

A lot has changed since 1993, including television’s desire to reboot and revive. Netflix is revisiting Barbary Lane by bringing back Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Paul Gross and Barbara Garrick, while Aussie Murray Bartlett (Looking) is now the third incarnation of Mouse.

Added to the ensemble are a parade of next-gen queers, many of whom are tenants at Barbary Lane.

“Baby cakes” Mary-Ann is now bored with her job hosting TV advertorials but persuades on / off husband Robert (Michael Park) to accompany her to San Francisco for Anna Madrigal’s 90th birthday. Dukakis, who is herself 87, is remarkable to still steal scenes, including when she emerges Doris Day-like on the balcony to the delight of her guests.

Mouse, who has shifted from twink to daddy in the preceding years, runs Plant Parenting nursery and busies himself with a cute African-American boyfriend Ben (Charlie Barnett). But Mary-Anne’s ex husband Brian still has unresolved issues with her which makes for a frosty homecoming.

Amongst the younger characters is Shawna (Ellen Page), the tough-cookie daughter of Mary-Ann and Brian; Jake (Josiah Victoria Garcia) who has transitioned to male and girlfriend Margo (May Hong); plus Instagram-obsessed Raven (Christopher Larkin) and Jen (Ashley Park) and filmmaker Claire (Zosia Mamet). There are dozens of LGBTQI extras to ensure no box goes unchecked. Victor Garber and Molly Ringwald will also appear.

Yet somehow the excitement of returning to Barbary Lane is not matched by the electricity on screen. While the production department has gone overboard with a splash of colour, twinkling lights and pink cupcakes it can’t cover up underwhelming storylines which no longer feel so ground-breaking in 2019 as they did in 1993. Some Dukakis one-liners notwithstanding, there are dialogue problems too-hackneyed for a well-regarded brand.

“I never thought I’d see the day. Mary-Ann Singleton returns to Barbary Lane!” declares Mouse.

The need to inject younger characters, like that rebooted Dallas, is foisted upon viewers whether we like them or not. That’s despite far more genre-bending shows such as Pose. The stars all seem to avoid frontal nudity and a little pot-smoking or the odd threesome is as naughty as we can muster.

Dede seems to have gotten the best deal, ensconced in a mansion and sipping at wine-o’clock, although even she bemoans boredom and could be on the verge of a being cast as a Real Housewife of San Francisco (p.s. that’s my take on it… not in the script). Linney is infinitely better in Ozark than the material she is given here.

The heart may be in the right place. The series is attempting to refresh the franchise for a new LGBTQI world and it boasts far more representation than the earlier outings. But ultimately, does it do more with it?

Mary-Ann may feel alive by coming “home” but I think I’d rather she dragged out the VCR and looked back on where she’s been.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City begins Friday on Netflix.

12 Comments:

    • No I watched 2. Not enough days in the week to watch all before a review. Sometimes a reader will come back and tell me why they disagree (fair enough, free country) but they have the benefit of hindsight having viewed a full series. A lot of the time not all eps are available to reviewers. But give it a go, you may enjoy!

      • Thanks David, completely agree with you.
        I appreciate you taking the time to explain this and the great job you continually do 🙂

  1. Please note that production shifted completely from season 1 to season 2. US Congress threatened to defund PBS (our version of ABC) if they made a second season – too much ‘homosexual’ sex. So Showtime picked it up, production value fell and it was never quite the same. Hopefully Netflix have done it justice.

  2. I remember the first series being really good, but then after a break they came back and the next one just wasn’t as good. Is this third incarnation actually based on the Armistead Maupin books? I read them as a young adult, I also read one done years later, was there more after that?

    • I remember watching a behind the scenes documentary and the original series also used a set for it’s EXT Barbary Lane apartments, stairwells and courtyard garden. The difference these days is the cameras are HD and makes it a bit easier to tell. Usually lighting, camera angles and clever editing of cast walking from real Location EXT into Studio EXT means you shouldn’t be able to tell. If you’re caught up in storyline etc you shouldn’t notice either, so sounds like you’re mind had wandered off while watching and you were noticing those details. I’m really looking forward to seeing it but if you’re noticing things like that then unfortunately I don’t think they’ve got it right this time.

    • timmydownawell

      I was very surprised when I visited the set for ‘Shortland Street’ in Auckland c. 1991. Overlapping carpet on the floors of the sets, that kind of thing. It looked so terrible and unconvincing in person, compared to how slick it looked on screen. Quite the eye opener as to what they could get away with then (obviously pre-HD) . I have a photo of myself in Gina’s Cafe though.

  3. timmydownawell

    I recently revisited the first season which I loved, the started the second where they had shifted production to Canada and substituted half the cast, which was pretty disappointing. I need to try and make the effort to remind myself of it all before starting on the new version.

  4. This was such a great show way back when. For a young gay man it really opened my eyes and heart. Not sure, based on your review, it may do the same now. Will still check it out.

  5. It is my favourite series of books but I have to admit the more recent ones are not quite as good as the earlier ones. I am just happy to see these characters back on screen.

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