Few fictional worlds have so meaningfully impacted the lives of LGBTQ Americans as Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City.” First serialized as a column in the San Francisco Chronicle, then produced as a groundbreaking 1993 PBS series, Maupin’s saga of a tight-knit LGBTQ community quartered at 28 Barbary Lane, home to Mary Ann Singleton and Anna Madrigal, was an early and beloved bellwether for contemporary queer life.
The television series returns this month in a 10-part Netflix reboot, and at Monday night’s New York City premiere, the series’ cast and creatives marked “Tales” as a triumph not just for the cherished characters of Barbary Lane, but for the LGBTQ writers and artists who conceived the sequel.
“To have an all-queer writers’ room, a group where nobody had to explain things, where the things that have all been in our heads, the experiences that we’ve all had growing up queer — that we could take our common ground and start from there — made a huge difference,” said Alan Poul, an original producer of the 1993 PBS series (as well as its 1998 and 2001 reboots), who serves as an executive producer and director for the Netflix sequel.
He added, “The time is right to re-approach this material and to bring Armistead’s incredible, magical sensibility to a new generation of fans and viewers.”
That the reboot was entirely staffed with queer writers was of crucial importance, reiterated cast and crew on the red carpet. “It’s time for that to happen, and, if it’s not going to happen for ‘Tales,’ then what’s it going to happen for?” said Laura Linney, who reprises her famed role as Mary Ann Singleton in the sequel, in addition to serving as executive producer.
“The amount of representation in this series just warms my heart. It’s something I wish I had more of as a kid,” added Ellen Page, who plays Mary Ann’s daughter Shawna, a character defined by the sexual freedoms and fluidity unique among Barbary Lane’s younger, 2019 inhabitants.
For queer actors of color, tasked with portraying among the most threatened members of LGBTQ life, the protection of a representative cast and crew “just makes it safe,” Charlie Barnett, cast as Michael Tolliver’s younger boyfriend, Ben, told Variety.
“It blew me away how comfortable it makes everyone,” Barnett continued. “Even if you’re the most ‘out’ person in the world, it’s terrifying to come out, and we have to do it a f—ing lot. It’s vulnerable, and in the same regard it’s what makes us such beautiful humans. That kind of vulnerability, that sharing of ourselves, that risk — it’s scary and, around the world, legitimately dangerous.”
“I feel really proud,” said Barbara Garrick, reprising her role as DeDe Halcyon Day in the new series, “proud of how ‘Tales’ has gone from being groundbreaking in ’93 with two guys kissing for the first time on television, to really going in depth about trans life in 2019, to seeing how the writers, producers, directors and talent, led by the genius (showrunner) Lauren Morelli are largely LGBTQ.”
“28 Barbary Lane represents an ethos that I think we all hope to create in the world, not just in this fictional story,” said Zosia Mamet, who plays Shawna’s girlfriend Claire.
The Netflix series picks up as Mary Ann, fleeing the perfect Connecticut life she left San Francisco to achieve twenty years earlier, returns to Barbary Lane, reunited with her daughter Shawna, ex-husband Brian (reprised by Paul Gross), and the chosen family she once adored.
There, she rejoins Olympia Dukakis’ Anna Madrigal, the transgender landlady and matriarch of the Barbary Lane community.
When the Academy Award winner took on the role 25 years ago, the depiction of an open and assimilated transgender character on cable television represented a courageous and radical step toward equality.
“Given the historical claim that Olympia has on this role, what Olympia has done for the trans community in carrying the mantle of Anna Madrigal forward, I can’t imagine anyone else playing Anna,” Linney said. “And now the baton is being passed.”
Today, the 87-year old returns to the role amid a different world for the trans community. While Dukakis portrays the aging Madrigal, turning 90 at the series’ start, flashbacks to her younger self are performed by actress Jen Richards, a step the transgender actress and activist sees as an important part of the transgender story for “Tales” and the entertainment industry.
“If you look over the whole history of casting, it’s always one of two things,” Richards told Variety. “If they want the trans person to seem obvious as a trans person — if they want them to be pathetic or colorful — they cast a man. If they want to trick the audience so to speak, then they cast a woman. So it’s always been aimed at a particular goal, narratively. And I think what’s happening now — what matters so much — is that narratives around the trans community can become more sophisticated, more nuanced because they know us.”
“Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City” premieres June 7 on Netflix.
(Photo above: Laura Linney, Lauren Morelli, Olympia Dukakis and Alan Poul)