“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