×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: ‘Tales of the City’

“We’re still people, aren’t we?” Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) asks at the beginning of the new installment of “Tales of the City. “Flawed, narcissistic… and doing our best.”

That’s as good a summation as any of the first 2019 episode of one of the most surprisingly resilient TV brands out there. Based on the writing of novelist and urban chronicler Armistead Maupin, “Tales of the City,” about a community of misfits finding one another in San Francisco, began its televised life as a 1993 miniseries; further installments arrived in 1998 and 2001. Eighteen years later, the show is back on Netflix, arriving in June after a premiere episode that screened, fittingly, at the San Francisco Film Festival April 10. (Further episodes are embargoed from review for now, so this beginning is what critics have to go on.)

The series’s interesting trick is, now as it was then, capturing the action through the eyes of an outsider. Dukakis’s Anna Madrigal has the most potent wisdom, insight, and lived experience about life on the margins, but she’s not the protagonist; Laura Linney’s Mary Ann, who enters the first series as a newcomer who’s impulsively decided to move to the Bay Area, is. Through her limited, gradually growing understanding of the world around her, we’re introduced, slowly, to a romantic vision of genuine community.

The romance of the first series owed something to the fact that it was depicting the San Francisco Maupin had first written about — pre-AIDS and thus defined by a sunny, optimistic libertinism. And the romance of the new one, which Mary Ann once again enters as an outsider, comes from the backbeat of our own moment. Ever the square, Mary Ann has returned from small-town exile on the East Coast, where she hasn’t seen any of her former San Francisco compatriots in more than twenty years. She missed some, including Anna and her old friend Michael Tolliver (played, now, by “Looking” actor Murray Bartlett, stepping into a role previously played by Marcus D’Amico and Paul Hopkins); she’s also consciously avoiding at least one. Ellen Page’s Shawna represents not merely a generation vastly less emotionally constipated about issues of sexual fluidity but also a painful tie to Mary Ann’s past.

The nature of the pair’s fractured bond will be legible enough to viewers without intimate familiarity with the previous installments. What will, perhaps, feel new is the somewhat dowdy approach to storytelling, a fundamental old-fashionedness that exists in interesting contrast to those elements of the story that are new. This story has hallmarks of the present day, from the AIDS meds Michael takes daily to the Instagram influencer culture in which Shawna’s peers swim. But it’s told with a gentle curiosity that probes and nudges its characters methodically. Mary Ann’s deep concern for those she left behind bleeds through the first episode; so too does her narcissism and her tendency to view San Francisco, and the legitimate connections she forged and abandoned there, as a bit of a field trip from her normal life. As played by Laura Linney, who instantly conjures both Mary Ann’s humanity and her niggling neediness, she’s flawed, narcissistic, and doing her best, in a story that never impugns her but doesn’t look away from her faults, either.

This is a story both of young people setting out on adventures and older characters regretting the choices they made; the latter is more richly drawn, but shines brightest through the contrast younger characters generate. Without their own tech-age belief in the power of the self — several of the younger characters feel both charmingly sure of their own beliefs and driven towards fame and success in ways Michael Tolliver’s cohort was not — all the ways Mary Ann has come to feel disempowered by her own decisions might not come through as clearly.

The tempo, in the first episode, follows the lead of Anna, a character who’s now deep into old age and who has plenty of insights to deliver, both to the characters around her and in an on-camera interview (a device the show hardly needs, but one that doesn’t hurt, either). “It seems to me that being interested in more people is generally better than being interested in fewer people,” Anna tells a young person whose sexuality is evolving in a direction they fear. It’s a piece of dialogue that feels like a cliche only in that Dukakis’s warm delivery makes it sound like advice offered thousands of times before. And it’s a lesson this miniseries, in its earliest going, seems to have taken to heart — there’s love here for just about every character, even those whose behavior is sometimes frustrating. It’s a promising beginning to a story that began before AIDS and continues in an era where patients live and manage their diseases, one that started when San Francisco was a bohemian swingers’ paradise and depicts, now, a city that’s both aging and rollicking with the still-extant hopes of young people. It’s enough to make fans and newcomers alike feel glad the story continued.

“Tales of the City.” Netflix. June 7. 10 episodes (one screened for review). 

Cast: Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Ellen Page, Charlie Barnett, Murray Bartlett, Paul Gross

Executive Producers: Lauren Morelli, Armistead Maupin, Alan Poul, Laura Linney, Andrew Stearn, Liza Chasin, Tim Bevan, and Eric Fellner

TV Review: 'Tales of the City'

More TV

  • Supernatural -- "Alpha and Omega" --

    'Supernatural': Rob Benedict on Chuck and Sam's Cosmic Connection

    As the final season of “Supernatural” inches toward the series’ end, it does so with one quintessential question looming over the show: Will the Winchesters have to kill God aka Chuck (Rob Benedict), and if they succeed, does that mean all of existence or simply Sam (Jared Padalecki) will cease to, well, exist? “It’s Season [...]

  • David BellamyChelsea Flower Show, Day 1,

    David Bellamy, Ex-BBC Broadcaster and Environmentalist, Dies at 86

    David Bellamy, the former BBC broadcaster and naturalist, died on Wednesday. He was 86. Bellamy was a household name in the U.K., having authored dozens of watercolor books and appeared on hundreds of TV programs about the environment, particularly in the 1980s and ’90s. He was frequently parodied by comedian Lenny Henry, and inspired Henry’s [...]

  • R Kelly Sexual Assult Accusations Mugshot

    'Surviving R. Kelly Part II' Gets Trailer, Release Date

    Without overstating the case, it’s hard to imagine that R. Kelly would not be in jail today if not for “Surviving R. Kelly.” While many of the details and accusers featured in the Lifetime docuseries were new, the primary facts have been known for many years — and yet the series, more than any of [...]

  • Simon Cowell Signs New Five-Year Deal

    Simon Cowell Signs New Five-Year Deal With Britain's ITV Amid 'AGT' Controversy

    Simon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment and ITV have signed a new five-year deal amid the ongoing controversy over “America’s Got Talent” in the U.S. The agreement gives Britain’s biggest commercial broadcaster Syco’s shows for the next half-decade, including “Britain’s Got Talent,” which will be on ITV until 2024. The deal also covers “The X Factor,” which [...]

  • HBO Sets 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Season

    HBO Sets 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Season 10 Premiere Date

    “Curb  Your Enthusiasm” fans may struggle to do just that, as HBO has revealed the premiere date for season 10 of the Larry David comedy. The show is set to return Jan. 19 on the premium cabler, with David once again playing a fictionalized version of himself as he stumbles from one faux-pas to the [...]

  • Brandi Rhodes attends New York Comic

    AEW Chief Brand Officer Brandi Rhodes to Deliver Keynote Address at NATPE 2020 (EXCLUSIVE)

    All Elite Wrestling’s Brandi Rhodes is set to deliver a keynote address at the annual National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) conference, which will take place in Miami in January. Rhodes serves as the chief brand officer of AEW in addition to working onscreen as in-ring talent. Her speech is titled “Building a Challenger [...]

  • Robin ThickeRobin Thicke in concert, Fox

    Robin Thicke Signs With ICM Partners

    Robin Thicke has signed with ICM Partners for representation in all areas. The multi-hyphenate is a featured panelist on Fox’s reality hit “The Masked Singer.” He’s also a busy recording and touring artist who had a smash hit in 2013 with “Blurred Lines,” which topped the pop charts for 12 weeks. His most recent release [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content