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From ‘Tales of the City’ to ‘Will & Grace,’ Queer Show Revivals Reveal TV’s Evolution

Four episodes into 2019’s “Tales of the City,” Michael “Mouse” Tulliver (Murray Bartlett) brings his boyfriend Ben (Charlie Barnett) to a dinner party. Ben’s the youngest there by a long shot; everyone else is of Mouse’s generation, the miraculous survivors of the AIDS epidemic that took more friends and lovers than they can count. Soon enough, the gulf between their ages and experiences becomes unavoidable when Ben takes offense at Mouse’s friends using a slur in passing — and they take offense right back. 

“Why is your generation obsessed with labels?” one sighs. 

“What you call someone is important,” Ben replies. “It’s about dignity. It’s about visibility.” 

“Any privilege that we happen to enjoy at this moment was won,” the friend counters, frustrated and hurt. “Clawed, tooth and nail, from a society that didn’t give two s–ts if we lived or died — and indeed, did not care when our friends started to die.”

This new “Tales of the City,” revived to check in on Armistead Maupin’s existing characters and introduce a new crop of queer people who have followed in their footsteps, is most often earnest and joyful, with undeniable soap undertones. But this tense conflict between Ben and Mouse’s friends nonetheless lies at its heart. Both sides have valid points; neither is entirely wrong nor entirely right. It’s also exactly the kind of clash that only a show like “Tales of the City,” an update of a program that purposefully includes queer people from all walks of life, could depict with the requisite lived experience and nuance.

Twenty-five years after “Tales of the City” first landed on PBS, an explosion in demand for television content and an increasingly visible LGBTQ population have combined to create a need like never before for stories many in the industry once considered taboo. Cable boasts thoughtful depictions of queer life with shows like Starz’s “Vida” and FX’s “Pose”; broadcast networks are home to tender coming-out stories on sitcoms like ABC’s “Fresh off the Boat” and NBC’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” But in 1994, the focus of “Tales of the City” on an array of LGBTQ characters wasn’t just singular — it was revolutionary. The same goes for a series such as NBC’s “Will & Grace,” a multicam sitcom that first aired in 1998 and starred not one but two gay men in its main cast. Ditto Showtime’s “The L Word,” a melodrama that debuted in 2004 and gave the premium-cable treatment to a dysfunctional group of Los Angeles lesbians. 

These shows, in wildly different ways, put faces to people some TV audiences had never met — and that others, hungry to see themselves represented, had never dared dream they could see on TV. But the shows also earned a fair amount of criticism from the LGBTQ community both as they aired and in retrospect. The 1994 “Tales of the City” cast Olympia Dukakis, a cis woman, in the role of its central matriarch, a trans woman. “Will & Grace” was accused of indulging in flat stereotypes of gay men, mocking lesbians and whitewashing New York City in general. “The L Word” often dismissed the idea of bisexuality and featured some of the worst clichés about trans people.

Each of these shows, trying to mount a comeback years after their series finales, is as much about attempting to address their more pernicious legacies as about recapturing their glory days. The new “Tales of the City” has Dukakis reprising her role of Anna Madrigal (a groan-inducing anagram for “a man and a girl”), but trans actress Jen Richards plays her in a flashback. The “L Word” revival enlisted trans writers and will be called “Generation Q,” in an apparent nod to the word “queer” being so widely reclaimed today. And when “Will & Grace” returned in 2017, it took pains to be more inclusive with its supporting cast and, like “Tales,” found a groove highlighting what it means to watch a younger age group reap the benefits of its older characters’ struggles. 

The intergenerational sparring over what it means to value and protect identity — and the singular joy of bonding over it — is exactly the kind of conversation at which series like “Tales of the City,” “Will & Grace” and “The L Word” can excel. They now have the chance to do what few shows ever have: use characters many know and love to tap into an ongoing conversation with empathy, insight and a sense of history. What more could we ask from TV? 

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