Tales of the City revisits Armistead Maupin’s characters and famous locale in a new series on Netflix. But can you watch, appreciate, and enjoy the series without the history?
Revivals, reboots, reunions are everywhere. Where as shows like Breaking Bad, The Americans, Mad Men are becoming more common ground for “Have you seen X?” discussions thanks to streaming, the revivals do not necessarily benefit from easy access. Tent pole sitcoms such as Will and Grace,
Rosean… The Connors, and even returning drama series Veronica Mars have benefited from years of syndication (and now streaming) deals that allow audiences an entry point to the show before/during/or after a revival begins.
For most series that are seeing their second turn on network TV or finding a new home on a streaming platform, I am just under the appropriate age to fully appreciate most of these revivals and approach them with the lens of “X did this, but Y fails to do that.”
As a host on the Hypable podcast ReWatchable, I’ve done my fair share of watching shows well after their time has come to an end. A lot of the discussions drift to how the series were “of their time.” And I am grateful for that shared perspective of people who watched the shows that we choose because that insight can color a particular episode or writing choice that places the series in context of the year in which it was made.
So how do you go about watching a series that on the surface feels exactly of this time (2019) without any knowledge of what came before it? Should you even watch it? The answer is, of course, yes. You can watch whatever your heart desires. And so that is exactly what I did with Tales of the City.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the series seemed to anchor itself by asking — How do you move forward without knowing anything of your past? How can you evolve if you are not open to the ideas of the future? — and addressing the answers through both the old and new characters of the series.
The series overall has those moments, particularly in the premiere episode, that you know are meant to stir up emotions for viewers coming back to Barbary Lane. The sweeping shots of the house, the lingering exchanges between characters, the first look at Olympia Dukakis’ Anna. Beyond that, I felt most connected to not a new character but another original series member — Laura Linney’s Mary Anne. This is, after all, her show.
Returning to San Francisco two decades away, she brings with her both the idea of what she left behind and the naïveté of a person encountering what’s happened in her wake. There are landmarks of her youth — the house still stands and Anna still watches over her chosen family, the Safeway is in the same spot, the hills are still a bitch to walk in platform shoes. But what she is having a hard time appreciating is that her history and memories of those places is now buried under the waves of people who have come and gone.
She leans into her memories as a young girl from Ohio stepping off the bus and embracing the city and the people she ended up calling her home. It was transformative all because she opened her eyes to these people’s stories. But coming back in 2019, she is clouded by her version of history all the glitter and glamour she cast on herself and the life she led, is actually a bit more tainted than she remembers. What version of history is her truth?
All of this is not piled on Mary Anne. It would be unfair if it was. Instead the sense of losing history is sprinkled across the characters.
Characters like Michael aka Mouse (recast for this series and played by Looking‘s Murray Bartlett) and his younger boyfriend Ben (Charlie Barnett). Where Mouse would prefer to bury the pain and trauma of his youth during the height of the AIDS crisis, the catharsis provided by revisiting that chapter of his life, brings about one of the more touching romantic relationship moments of the series.
In another episode, Shawna (Ellen Page) takes an old photo of Anna from her early days as a transgender woman in 1960s San Francisco. There is something about the photo that she likes. It is not until Claire (Zosia Mamet), a filmmaker who Shawna hangs around with, recognizes the photo and the place set in the background as Compton’s Cafeteria. She takes Shawna to an old, abandoned building that is recognized merely by a plaque in the sidewalk as the location where in 1966 one of the first LGBT-riots was held, pre-dating Stonewall by three years.
More context is provided through a fantastic flashback episode set in 1966 tells the story of Anna in her youth, with young Anna being played by trans actress Jen Richards.
Newer characters provide the modern look at a trans story through the character Jake Rodriguez, a trans man who has recently transitioned, played by trans non-binary actor Garcia. Where Anna is of the old guard, Jake is discovering, not only who he is in his new body, but how that affects the relationships that got him to where he is today including a look at his family outside of Barbary Lane. In an interview with Digital Spy, Garcia said that they hope this series will encourage writers to create more opportunities to tell their stories. “Just because you may come from the same queer community, that doesn’t mean that you are marginalized and underrepresented in the same way,” they said. “And so to have queer people of color on screen is so important because there are so many of us and there are so many stories. We’re not just our sexual or gender identity. We’re more than that. So how does [a story] look when race plays into it, when our cultural backgrounds play into it? Those are all extremely different stories, and I want to see more going into depth about how our backgrounds affect us in our identity and how we carry ourselves in the world.”
In addition to the character work, there is a mystery at the heart of the series that threads its way through the episodes. This is by no means a one-afternoon binge and forget. The characters will stay with you for a while and not just because you are committing to ten hours of viewing time.
Tales of the City never quite went away and if you are left wanting more when the series ends, the source material (and the many incarnations thereafter) are out there in almost every form of media you can imagine — BBC radio play, movie, books, TV.
For right now, I think I’m good with what the Netflix series has given us.
Tales of the City is available now on Netflix.