TV Review - Tales of the City (2019)
Maupin's first novel was adapted into an Emmy-nominated miniseries, which aired on PBS back in 1994, five years after the sixth novel came out. The second novel would be turned into an Emmy-nominated miniseries, which aired on Showtime back in 1998. The third novel would be turned into an Emmy-nominated miniseries, which also aired on Showtime back in 2001. Therefore, it's been nearly 20 years since Maupin's work has been on television.
Each miniseries besides the 2001 version is six episodes long. The 1994 version was only six episodes. The 1998 version was only six episodes. The 2001 version was three episodes. It was half as long. This 2019 version is longer. It's a total of 10 episodes. This is perhaps too long. Arguably, the previous miniseries were only adapting one book. This latest version is basically adapting three books, as well as adding new material. It doesn't make the miniseries all that mini, but juggling three books is a lot. Morelli wants to be faithful to all that material. Unfortunately, chunks of it can't help but feel like a waste of time.
Murray Bartlett (Looking and Guiding Light) stars as Michael Tollier aka "Mouse." He was living at Barbary Lane before Mary Ann and he continued living there after she left. He says he's lived there for his entire adult life. He has a job as a florist at a flower shop called "Plant Parenthood." He's 54 years-old. He's HIV-positive, having survived the AIDS crisis of the 80's and 90's. He's currently dating someone almost 30 years his junior and some of his issues involve having a younger boyfriend.
That's a rather meta-textual echo. There's a more intra-textual echo. In the third episode of the 1994 miniseries, Mouse goes with his boyfriend at that time, Jon Fielding, to a dinner party filled with gay men who are all snobbish and racist. In the fourth episode of this series, Mouse again goes with his boyfriend to a dinner party filled with gay men who are all snobbish and racist. It's an interesting reversal that in the 1994 miniseries, Mouse spoke out against those snobs or at least spoke up. Here, however, Mouse is as quiet as a mouse as similar snobs say offensive things to and about other people in the LGBT community who aren't wealthy and white. The benefit though of this series that the previous series didn't have is the presence of LGBT characters of color.
In Episode 4, Ben calls out the snobs for using the word "tranny" or "trannie." He says it's an offensive word for transgender people. Speaking of things that are also offensive to transgender people or the community, over the past five years, there has been a growing controversy over cisgender actors or actors who aren't transgender playing characters on screen who are transgender. Criticisms were launched against Jared Leto who won the Oscar for playing a transgender character in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Jeffrey Tambor who won the Emmy for playing a transgender character in Transparent (2014). Scarlett Johansson even had to back out of playing a transgender character in a movie because of the outcry and backlash.
Dukakis is such an incredible actress that it probably would have thrown off the rhythm and gravity of the show, if she were recast. Throughout the various miniseries though, several characters have been recast. In fact, the character of Mouse has been recast twice. Bartlett is actually the third actor to play the character. Dukakis is an Oscar-winning actress. She's also a very capable octogenarian. Unless she didn't want to play the role again, replacing her probably would have been difficult if not cruel to a woman of her caliber. What makes up for Dukakis' reprisal here is that the show doesn't make her the only transgender person. Several transgender characters are introduced and most of them are played by actual transgender actors.
Daniela Vega (A Fantastic Woman) plays Ysela, a fellow transgender woman in San Francisco trying to survive on the streets. She contrasts with Anna in that she's very cynical and believes that survival is more important than dreaming or trying to live an aspirational life. She doesn't believe love is possible, not even among others in the LGBT community, certainly not in the mainstream. She's also about fighting and pushing the protest and riots, whereas Anna isn't.
Of the supporting characters that don't work, Ellen Page (Inception and Juno) co-stars as Shawna Hawkins, the daughter to Mary Ann. Except, she's not Mary Ann's biological daughter. The plot-line involving Shawna felt unnecessary and very superfluous. If her character weren't in this series, I doubt anything would have been lost. As a result, her father, Brian Hawkins, played by Paul Gross, also felt superfluous. Zosia Mamet who plays Claire, the girlfriend to Shawna, also came off as contrived and unneeded. Tony Award-nominee Ashley Park and actor-musician Christopher Larkin play social media influencers known as the twins. They felt disposable as well.
Casting those characters aside, the rest of this series felt incredibly strong. The fourth episode and the eighth episode are my absolute favorites, but all-in-all the series is one of the best of the year.
For a great discussion from transgender actors, check out Variety's Transgender in Hollywood Roundtable.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 10 eps.
Available on Netflix.