TV Review - Tales of the City (2019)

Armistead Maupin is a 75-year-old author. He was born in Washington, DC, but he was raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, where his father worked as a lawyer. He started working in TV news in the 1960's before going to work in newspapers in the 1970's. He moved to the west coast and the Bay Area where he started publishing serialized stories in the San Francisco Chronicle. His stories about that city were popular enough that he turned them into novels. The first of which came out in 1978. The novels focus on a woman from the Midwest who moves to San Francisco and lives in an apartment building on 28 Barbary Lane where she meets an array of characters. The woman is heterosexual and comes from a conservative background, but she becomes a way of introducing readers to LGBT culture in this area. All in all, there have been nine novels.

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.

The original author picked up the novel series with his book Michael Tolliver Lives (2007). He kept going with two more books in 2010 and 2014. In 2017, lesbian writer Lauren Morelli (Orange is the New Black) began developing another miniseries based on Maupin's books. This adaptation would include characters and plot-lines from the 2007 novel and the last two by Maupin. This would mean that five characters from the 1994 series would return, but, about a dozen or so characters who have not been seen on screen before would also be introduced.

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.

Laura Linney (Ozark and The Big C) reprises her role as Mary Ann Singleton, the aforementioned woman from the Midwest. She moves into the apartment building on Barbary Lane. She takes to the landlady who runs the place and offers sage advice to everyone. She also befriends a gay man who's one of the tenants. She begins a romance with a straight man who's another of the tenants. She similarly befriends a socialite who doesn't live at Barbary Lane because she's wealthier. Mary Ann and the straight man do become a couple and adopt a daughter. However, Mary Ann wanted a career in television, so she leaves to New York City to pursue that career, basically abandoning the man and his daughter. She married another man from Connecticut and had her own show, but now she's back to visit Barbary Lane, having been gone for 20 years.

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.

A former boyfriend named Harrison, played by Matthew Risch, shows up as a third wheel to interfere or shake things up with Bartlett's character. Ironically, this is an echo to what happened to Bartlett's character in his series, Looking. In that HBO program, also set in San Francisco, Bartlett's character wasn't an older florist in a relationship with a younger man. Bartlett's character was the younger man dating an older florist. In that same HBO program, Risch shows up as a third wheel to interfere or shake things up with Bartlett's character there.

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.

Charlie Barnett (Russian Doll and Chicago Fire) co-stars as Ben Marshall, the 28-year-old who works in Silicon Valley or some tech business in or near San Francisco. He's African-American or at least biracial. He's been Mouse's boyfriend for six months. Ben doesn't live in Barbary Lane but he spends a lot of time there and has befriended all the residents. He's one of several additions to the cast that diversifies the show's group of actors, which for the majority of the previous miniseries was predominantly, if not all-white. Not only does Ben's presence challenge the snobs in Episode 4 on a racial level with probably the greatest line in the entire series but he also challenges verbally what was an issue for the previous miniseries as well.

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.

Olympia Dukakis (Steel Magnolias and Moonstruck) also reprises her role of Anna Madrigal, the owner of Barbary Lane. The beginning of this series is the celebration of her 90th birthday, which is what attracts Mary Ann back to San Francisco. She might be old but she still seems very sharp and just as mobile as she was 20 years ago. One of her defining traits is that she's transgender. Dukakis though is not transgender, but, as far as I know, Dukakis hasn't been the subject of any criticism for playing this role, even today. Because she was first cast 25 years ago, she's effectively grandfathered or grandmothered into this series with no criticism.

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.

Jen Richards (Blindspot and Nashville) plays Anna Madrigal in the year 1966. Episode 8 is entirely a flashback to the year 1966. Specifically, the episode pivots around a true-life incident known as Compton's Cafeteria riot. It's referred to as a comparable incident to the Stonewall riots in 1969, which launched the gay rights movement in the United States. The Compton's Cafeteria riot is proof that the gay rights movement had already been in motion. Stonewall became the poster child for the gay rights movement, probably because it was bigger, but this incident was important and instrumental. Anna is dropped in the middle of it and through her we understand the intricacies and the issues leading up to and following that incident. It's powerful and moving. It's also amazing that an actual transgender actress can portray it, giving such authenticity and authority to it.

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.

In terms of other supporting characters, there were some that were more interesting than others. Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Rectify) plays Tommy Nelson, the man with whom Anna falls in love in 1966. He's certainly smitten with her as she catches his eye in a boutique. He takes her out and shows her an alternate way of living that isn't like how other transgender women live. Josiah Victoria Garcia who is non-binary and transgender in real-life plays Jake Rodriguez, a transgender man who lives in Barbary Lane. His story of transitioning both his gender and his orientation is also powerful and moving. May Hong who plays Margot Park, the girlfriend of Jake, is also given a great arc to play.

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.

Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 10 eps.

Available on Netflix.


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