Back at 28 Barbary Lane, with more tales to tell
When the “Tales of the City” first premiered on PBS in 1994, it was pioneering TV. Based on the 1978 novel by Armistead Maupin, the six-episode miniseries stirred up enough protests and threats over its LGBT themes that PBS decided not to fund a second round. The ratings were high, the critics loved it, and Maupin had already written a few sequels, but conservative groups found the subject matter — even with the editing out of explicit scenes — unbefitting a publicly funded network.
Showing LGBT life — especially through Maupin’s celebratory lens — was a bridge too far. The world of “Tales of the City” revolved around self-acceptance and pride, perhaps not the negative point of view some might have preferred, especially during the peak of the AIDS epidemic. Showtime wound up picking up the property and adapted two of Maupin’s sequels, “More Tales of the City” in 1998 and “Further Tales of the City” in 2001.
Now, Netflix is bringing “Tales of the City” back for a 10-episode chapter, and it’s remarkable how uncontroversial it all seems. The world has changed, TV has changed, and LGBT and Q culture has changed. Rather than feeling cutting edge, the new 10 episodes, written by Lauren Morelli of “Orange Is the New Black,” play out like comfort food. They are sweet, steeped in the romance of San Francisco, and, like Maupin, affectionate toward all of the characters, not least of all Olympia Dukakis’s Anna Madrigal, the trans matriarch who continues to preside over the apartments and inhabitants at 28 Barbary Lane.
The story line is launched with a 90th birthday party for Mrs. Madrigal, which brings Laura Linney’s Mary Ann Singleton back to town from Connecticut with her stuffy husband in tow. Mary Ann has a lot of unfinished business in San Francisco, it turns out, and her sudden need to deal with it is annoying to her old crowd, including her ex-husband Brian (Paul Gross) and her best friend Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (played in this series by Murray Bartlett from “Looking”). In her wise way, Mrs. Madrigal — still smoking plenty of pot as she enters her 10th decade — tries to coach Mary Ann, but then she has a new piece of problematic business to deal with, along with a mysterious new stranger in her life, played by Victor Garber.
There are a number of new young characters, meant to represent queer people who are still defining themselves — or refusing to define themselves. Jake, played by the trans nonbinary actor Garcia, is comfortable as a man, but unsure about whether he’s attracted to men or women. We see Shawna, played by Ellen Page, who fits into this world seamlessly, having sex with a woman and with a male-female couple. She is an appealing addition to the story; she takes beautiful care of Mrs. Madrigal, but she’s not as savvy when it comes to her own needs and hurts, one of which involves the absence of her mother in her life.
There are moments when the series is a bit too obvious in its efforts to be contemporary, in order to expand the saga of Barbary Lane beyond the 1970s sensibility where it began. A bit about a pair of twins, Ani and Raven (Ashley Park and Christopher Larkin), who are obsessed with becoming rich and famous through Instagram, is grating. But the attempts to reveal a wide range of sex and gender identities are generally refreshing, and they help make this return to Barbary Lane and the spectacular views from its roof a little more than nostalgic.
TALES OF THE CITY
Starring: Laura Linney, Ellen Page, Charlie Barnett, Murray Bartlett, Olympia Dukakis, Molly Ringwald, Victor Garber, May Hong, Paul Gross, Zosia Mamet, Michael Park
On: Netflix, season one available Friday