When the original “Tales of the City” mini-series (as they were called back in the day) premiered in January 1994 on PBS, NBC’s “Must See TV” (“Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “ER”) was all anybody watched. Based on a series of Armistead Maupin San Francisco Chronicle columns that first appeared in 1976, “Tales” was based on a series of Armistead Maupin San Francisco columns that first appeared in 1976. Both the columns and the series were decades ahead of its time, presenting male gay and bisexual characters who kissed on camera and had sex in bathhouses. Forty years before the self-congratulatory “Pose,” Maupin gave us a transgender heroine, the sly and fascinating Anna Madrigal (played by “Moonstruck” Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis), whose name one Maupin fan determined was anagram for A Man and a Girl.
Mrs. Madrigal grew marijuana and owned a magical piece of real estate at 28 Barbary Lane — based on Macondray Lane, an actual street in the Russian Hill neighborhood — and gathered as her tenants a collection of quirky refugees escaping repression of one kind or another. One of them, Cleveland-born innocent Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), who came to America’s playground for a vacation and stayed for years, became the eyes and ears for the viewer. She was Alice in a gay Wonderland.
Why are we not surprised one of most daring shows of its day originally aired in Britain, in 1993? Or that it took nearly 20 years for someone to adapt Maupin’s popular books into filmed entertainment? We now live in an era where every “edgy” series is preceded by an expensive p.r. campaign that pre-programs us to applaud the work for its daring so that it can receive maximum media coverage and win awards. PBS was hardly considered edgy in the mid-1990s yet “Tales” beguiled us with its empatheric style and talented cast of young actors on the cusp of stardom. The show launched the careers of Linney, now a four-time Emmy winner, and former “Criminal Minds” star Thomas Gibson, who played married bisexual bathhouse habitue Beauchamp Day. Additionally, “Rocketeer” star Billy Campbell was cast against type as gay gyno Jon Fielding. The series cast such a spell that two sequels, in 1998 and 2001, eventually aired.
Netflix will present a new “Tales of the City” on June 7 and the timing seems right, as the series reunites us with some of the original characters while introducing appealing new ones. With Maupin on board as an executive producer, the series presents gay characters who feel marginalized by the “crypto-currency” titans who now run the former playground for America’s outcasts yet they still do their thing. Anna Madrigal still prevails, renting out her apartments to a new batch of youngsters who now find each other on apps instead of the bathhouses that were shuttered during the AIDS epidemic. At 87, the still robust Dukakis regally plays Madrigal, whose 90th birthday is the occasion that brings Maryann Singleton back to the city that first made her feel alive. She is happily reunited with her best friend from her youth, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (originally played by Marcus D’Amico, now by “Looking” actor Murray Bartlett), a plague survivor with a much younger boyfriend, Ben (Charlie Barnett of “Chicago Fire” fame).
If San Francisco is still the place where young people gravitate to find themselves, this “Tales” also presents it as a refuge for the middle-aged, like Mary Ann, headed for a second divorce, to find out what went wrong with their lives — and if they still have time to fix it.
As the original “Tales” introduced us to Linney, Gibson, Chloe Webb and a host of other young actors, we now have “Juno” Oscar nominee Ellen Page as Shawna, the skeptical daughter of Mary Ann and fellow Barbary Lane tenant Brian Hawkins. “Girls” alumna Zosia Mamet plays an aspiring filmmaker who wants to document the evolution of the city’s transgender movement, giving the writers a chance to commemorate such real-life events as the 1966 Compton Cafeteria Riot, which predated Stonewall by three years in the history of gay-transgender activism.
Reboots are a dime a dozen these days as sterile TV executives exhume one “classic” after another and give it a half-assed polish, hoping our love of nostalgia will overcome their lack of creativity. That’s not the case with “Tales of the City.” The series was the first of its kind and is poised now to offer a valentine to the city where gay rights started while showing why some people always leave their hearts in San Francisco.