Eighteen years after it last aired on TV, Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” returns as a 10-part Netflix miniseries that starts streaming on Friday. As was the case in 1994 (on PBS), 1998 and 2001 (on Showtime), the narrative is filled with gay men, lesbians, transgender women and men, drug use, nudity, casual sex and a variety of fetishes.
And it all seems a lot less shocking than it once did. Which caused me to wonder if that’s because I had changed or because the country has.
Both, I’m thinking. Which is a good thing. Maybe not for Netflix, but certainly for the rest of us.
When Maupin’s “Tales” first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, it was shocking — simply because some of his characters were gay and transgender. The newspaper series became a series of novels; the first novel became a British miniseries in 1993 that aired on PBS in 1994. And the homophobes came out in force, pressuring PBS not to get involved in any sequels — which moved to Showtime.
In all of its incarnations, “Tales of the City” has been not just engaging. Certainly, the narrative is filled with popcorn elements — the religious cannibals and the Jim Jones who (in the books’ universe) survived Jonestown come to mind — but it was also an ode to and chronicle of San Francisco in the 1970s and ’80s.
And it’s always been important. It introduced characters who were relatable, lovable and outside the mainstream, and it let members of what we now call the LGBTQ+ community know they were not alone. In her refined, elegant way, the Anna Madrigal character became an icon for trans rights decades before most of us even heard of trans rights. And the coming-out letter Michael Tolliver wrote to his parents became a template for a lot of young people.
Clearly, we’ve still got a long way to go. But the world is much changed since the days of the first six of the nine “Tales” books and the first three miniseries. And something was lost with the decision to have Netflix’s “Tales” continuation take place in the present day.
That’s not entirely a bad thing. The cast of Netflix show is a lot more diverse than the casts of the first three. And the series addresses how the tech boom has driven out many quirky middle- and lower-class San Franciscans.
However, not only does the timeline not make any sense (try not to think about it), but San Francisco in 2019 is very different than it was in 1981, when “Further Tales” — the third book and miniseries — took place.
Hey, it’s great to get reacquainted with fictional friends — including original cast members Laura Linney (as Mary Ann), Paul Gross (Brian), Barbara Garrick (DeDe) and Olympia Dukakis (Anna, who is still presiding over her “logical family” at the big, ramshackle house at 28 Barbary Lane).
Murray Bartlett (“Looking”) takes over as Michael, and the cast — some playing characters from the later books, others characters invented for TV — includes Ellen Page, Victor Garber, Molly Ringwald, Charlie Barnett, Daniela Vega, May Hong, Zosia Mamet, Christopher Larkin and Ashley Park.
Fans of Maupin’s books will have to forget most of what happened in the last three, other than Mary Ann returning to San Francisco after many years. Her relationship (or lack thereof) with her now-grown, adopted daughter, Shauna (Page) is entirely different; and the miniseries’ central mystery of why Anna has decided to sell Barbary Lane — an invention for TV — comes to a massively disappointing conclusion. (This despite the fact that Maupin is an executive producer.)
Anna’s past also diverges from the books, but in the tradition of “Tales,” we learn something about San Francisco’s 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, when transgender women and drag queens fought back against police brutality — three years before the Stonewall Riots in New York.
Still, “Tales of the City” is no longer shocking. If you never read the books or saw the first three miniseries, you may wonder why anyone thinks this is a big deal.
It definitely is. And if you keep your expectations in check, the new one is worth streaming.