Certain parameters for the new limited series version of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” were already set when showrunner Lauren Morelli joined the project — most notably the fact that Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) would be returning to 28 Barbary Lane for Anna Madrigal’s (Olympia Dukakis) 90th birthday, which Morelli calls “a really amazing log line.” From there, though, Morelli had reign to bring the story forward for the modern audience, as well as to create a new mystery around Anna’s past — a mystery, she says, that “almost killed” her writers.
“The writers’ room board looked like we were serial killers,” Morelli tells Variety. “It was elaborate graphs of, ‘What does the audience know, and what do they need to know, and what do we withhold?’ You’re never quite sure how to calibrate how much the audience needs to know and how do you know if they’re going to get ahead of you?”
The new version of the story starts with the intention of a celebration (the aforementioned birthday party), but things quickly get trickier after Anna receives a blackmail letter and decides to put her infamous, inclusive community home up for sale. This doesn’t sit well with her tenants, least of all Mary Ann, who decides to dig into what is really going on. Her investigation takes the story down a different path than Maupin’s novels, in what Morelli calls a “parallel universe” version of the story.
“I really wanted to complicate Anna this season because I think she could just be in this magical trans lady place where she’s wonderful and magnanimous and gives wisdom. It felt like we could dirty her up a little bit in an interesting way,” Morelli explains.
Morelli revealed the truth to the audience first, by delivering a standalone flashback episode that explored Anna’s early days in San Francisco. Played by Jen Richards, the younger version of Anna left her family and moved out west to truly start her life as a woman. A dreamer who was looking for a fairy tale romance, she caught the eye of a police officer (played by Luke Kirby), but she still ended up living a slight double life, because his colleagues couldn’t know that she was trans. This didn’t sit well with her friends, who were often literally fighting for their lives against the police.
“I felt really strongly about honoring Armistead’s town, and for better or worse. When you’re talking about trans women trying to survive in 1966, that story is a dark story,” Morelli says. “I wanted to tell a really complicated story, but you’re also telling a story in this political landscape about a group of trans women, so I certainly wanted to be mindful of not doing any damage to the community with the portrayal.”
Similarly, Morelli says it was very important to her not to fall into the trap of “purposely withholding a piece of information and then dropping it like a bomb at an act break” when it came to Anna’s rich history. Since it has been known within the “Tales” universe for decades that Anna is trans, Morelli didn’t feel like she was using Anna’s past as a way to shock the audience with who she was, but rather layer some complications into how far she’d go to get where she was.
As it turned out here, the money Anna used to have her surgery and purchase the property had come from that cop ex-boyfriend. Although Anna had told him she was going to give it back to those he stole from, she ended up giving back to her community in a different way: by creating the safe haven. But a wannabe artist and filmmaker, Claire (Zosia Mamet) found out about Anna’s guilt and exploited it.
The character of Claire, Morelli says, “came out of talking about both what San Francisco was and what it has become, and the idea of a white privileged girl who might not have the resources to make a documentary and the self importance that come with making a documentary.” Because the tone of “Tales” was designed to be “a little elevated” and even at times “a little campy,” Morelli continues, such a character felt like “the personification of a lot of those things.”
“Claire ended up being a really important device, and then of course she’s an outsider, so she felt like the natural place to go for a surprising villain,” she says. “It’s this lovely warm family drama, and also she was making them pulpy and fun and a little addictive because you were never quite sure where this mystery thread was going, and it felt like it wouldn’t be ‘Tales’ without that.”
The mystery was just one part of the story, though. Morelli and her writers’ room also wove together multi-generational queer stories that included Jake (Josiah Victoria Garcia), a young trans man still figuring out how he fully identifies; Margot (May Hong), Jake’s former long-term girlfriend who gets involved in a new relationship; Ben (Charlie Barnett), who is navigating a relationship with Mouse (Murray Bartlett), complicated by feelings of jealousy around an ex; and Shawna (Ellen Page), who is searching for love and acceptance not only from a romantic partner but also from both her biological and adoptive parents.
“We wanted the world to look like what San Francisco itself looks like. It felt like such an opportunity to me to get to have these conversations because so often even when we get queer shows we are still segregated. We still get the lesbian show, the gay show, the trans show, and I was really struck by the intersectionality of our community,” Morelli says.
“We’ve had to present ourselves as one thing for so long, and because we’re seen as one thing and portrayed as one thing, we don’t get to have a lot of conversations about the resentments we have about how the ways in which we identify continue to expand and evolve. But there’s some real change, and I think that that happens not just in the generation above me, but also the Generation Z coming up behind me. They identify in ways that I’ve never heard of, and how do we crack that open and allow space for it and talk about it? A lot of this can just be about, here are people who are loving and fumbling in their lives the way we all are, regardless of how they might identify.”
All of these characters were brought together by Anna when she opened up her home to them, but the one who had the closest journey to her own was Jake, because of his own transition. So it was fitting that he was the one who found her after she passed away in the night. Her truth came to light, her chosen family didn’t abandon her because of it, and a weight was lifted, which allowed her to fee like she was “given grace and forgiveness [to] move onto a more infinite space,” says Morelli.
There would not be a 28 Barbary Lane without Anna Madrigal, but now that she is gone, Morelli doesn’t consider this a definitive end to the story. While she points out this particular installment of the story was always intended to be a limited series, she believes the world could always use the “warmer and a little more empathetic world” that this show depicts.
“I know she has anchored the world for so long, and she’s so important, but just as some of the original characters have moved onto different things, it allots space for this younger generation to come in. I’m really interested in the question of what happens to Barbary Lane after Anna’s gone,” Morelli admits.