Home Theatre: Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City - A celebration of the queer community
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's Tales of the City, which is currently streaming on Netflix
To mark Pride Month (June), Netflix recently released Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, based on Maupin's novel series of the same name. Some of the novels have previously been adapted as a multi-part television series back in the early 90s, at which time it was noted for its open, celebratory portrayal of the queer community. I knew none of this a month ago. A friend mentioned the show and it sounded interesting, and soon, I discovered it was based on a nine-novel series. However, the same friend assured me that I did not really need to know anything about it before watching it. I tentatively dipped my feet in and before I knew it, was swept away.
The story of Tales of the City is set around an apartment complex at 28 Barbary Lane, San Francisco (the city is featured prominently, and as someone with a personal connection to the vibrant city, known for its queer-friendliness, it is pleasing to see). 28 Barbary Lane is owned by Anna Madrigal (played by the brilliant Olympia Dukakis, who you might remember from Moonstruck) and this series opens with her 90th birthday celebrations. A trans woman, who has opened up her apartment complex to open-minded people, primarily from the queer community, we quickly find out that Anna is a local legend, respected and adored by all. A former tenant, Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) returns after a long absence to attend the birthday party. Mary Ann left her husband Brian Hawkins and daughter Shawna (Ellen Page), when the latter was still a toddler, to go east and pursue a career in broadcasting.
Also in the mix are Mary Ann's best friend Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and his (much-younger) partner Ben Marshall; trans man Jake (played with grace and tenderness by trans non-binary actor Garcia) and his partner Margot (a stunning May Hong); documentary filmmaker Claire Duncan, whom Shawna falls for; and several others. The cast is quite extensive and gives the series a soap opera feel, albeit one that doesn't go on forever. Also unlike the soaps we are used to, the relationships here are largely, decidedly, and refreshingly non-heteronormative. The series is quite explicit (it comes with a 16+ rating for 'strong language and sex’) but not more so than your average television show these days. The only difference is that we are not used to seeing so much non-hetero sex in a mainstream show — it is about time that we do. Of particular note is how very non-exploitatively said sex is portrayed on screen. For instance, when Jake decides to explore gay sex, the scene is erotic but also respectful.
Tales of the City is written and directed by those from the LGBTQ+ community and it really shows. Queer characters may be more common in television and film now than in the 90s when the original series premiered, but they are still largely relegated to the background. To see a show unapologetically celebrate the community, with such loving detail, is wonderful. Everything feels real and lived in, once again proving how important it is for oppressed people to tell their own stories. It is only a 10-episode series, but by the end, I was truly invested in each of these characters and felt like I knew them. While I have friends in the queer community, this series gave me a chance to see it from the inside as it were. It is educational, but only incidentally so. What it primarily is, is entertaining.
There is so much joy and lightheartedness here — the Instagram influencer twins and their shenanigans; Mary Ann's friend Dee Dee, who appears to be just a vanilla rich white woman, but turns out to have more character; and of course Mary Ann herself and her insatiable need to follow her instincts. There's clever subversion of tropes — Brian has a neighbour and friend, Wren, whose character at first bothered me because she seemed like the stereotypical black woman friend who is a sharp-tongued sounding board for the white man, but then the writers cleverly change their equation. There's good story-telling and incredible acting — the cast is uniformly good, but special mention to all the trans actors like Jen Richards, Daniela Vega, and the aforementioned Garcia, who knock it out of the park and prove that there's no excuse for filmmakers to keep casting cis actors in trans roles. The diversity also extends to race, and the effortless inclusivity in this regard is notable for an American show.
The characters are what truly make Tales of the City special. To use Anna's words, they are "flawed, narcissistic, and doing [their] best," not unlike you and I, but they are also loving and kind towards each other. There's a true sense of community among them. When everyone rallies together to save 28 Barbary Lane and the entire corps of Body Politic (the queer feminist burlesque co-op where Shawna and Margot work) turns up with rainbow and trans flags waving high, I had goosebumps. In our present times, when it feels like the world is going backward, a story like this brings much-needed hope. The final episode almost broke me, before ending on a lovely note of positivity. My heart was full and to use the words of another character, "It's kinda beautiful."