1970s, 20th Century America, Anna Madrigal, Armistead Maupin, Charlie Barnett, Homosexuality, Laura Linney, Mary Ann SIngleton, Michael Tolliver, Murray Bartlett, Olympia Dukakis, San Francisco, Tales of the City
Netflix has released its first (and perhaps only) season of Tales of the City. Confusingly, it’s the first Netflix season, but the fourth season of the series based on the novels of the same name by Armistead Maupin that chronicle the lives of the residents of 28 Barbary Coast in San Francisco. The first three seasons were set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the AIDS crisis took hold and carved its way through the city’s gay community. The current season, however, is set in the present day (although it’s only been 20 years for the characters, allowing the series to bring back four of the six actors who led the show in its first season, which was filmed in 1993).
Spoiler Alert: This post will discuss major plot twists in the Netflix season, so if you haven’t watched it yet, you might want to put off reading this post.
The First Three Seasons
The original series focused on the naïve Midwesterner Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney, in her breakout role), the young straight lothario waiter Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross), Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico), the young gay man who craves romance, Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb) a carefree bisexual woman, and their landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), who is eventually revealed to be a post-operative transwoman and Mona’s father. Edgar Halycon (Donald Moffat), Mary Ann and Mona’s boss, and DeDe Halcyon Day (Barbara Garrick), Edgar’s daughter who is in an unhappy marriage also have major parts.
The show focuses on the characters’ sexual adventures and search for meaningful relationships. The show was ground-breaking in its day in the frankness of its depiction of the sexual milieu of San Francisco. Michael’s sexual liaisons and dreams of marriage are treated with the same respect that Anna and Edgar’s romance receives, and his relationship in the second season is presented as entirely normal and appropriate. Brian visits a hetero bath house and two of the secondary characters go to a gay one. DeDe contemplates having an abortion after an adulterous fling. Most of the characters smoke pot freely and Mona and Mouse use cocaine and Quaaludes in a casual fashion. The characters are simultaneously decadent and innocent, enjoying the pre-AIDS hedonism of the 70s.
In many ways, Anna Madrigal was the first sensitive depiction of a trans person on television. Throughout the first season, it’s clear she has a secret and the revelation of that secret to the audience is a big part of the conclusion of the season, but the show doesn’t really sensationalize her identity, especially as the second season goes on. As Anna tells first Brian and then Mona and then Michael and Mary Ann, none of them react badly; they just listen and discuss what she’s said. Mona in particular quickly begins to call out another character for misgendering Anna, long before misgendering was common idea or even a term. The only people who react poorly are characters already presented in negative terms, such as Mona’s mother, who is bitter about how Anna abandoned her two decades before. The only sour note in the whole series is that Anna presents her secret as “a lie” she’s been perpetrating on the people around her, instead of merely a facet of her personal life she has no obligation to disclose. While the choice to cast Olympia Dukakis as a trans woman feels regressive today, it’s worth pointing out that in the 1990s, it was standard practice to cast men to play trans women, so the casting of Dukakis was by the standards of the day moderately progressive.
The Current Season
The Netflix series showrunner, Lauren Morelli, has consciously sought to update the show’s depiction of San Francisco, introducing a crop of new main characters who capture the city’s diversity better than the original show, which has no non-white characters other than a maid, a fashion model who is eventually revealed to be a white woman using a drug to darken the pigment of her skin for career reasons, and a television reporter (in the third season). Michael (now played by Murray Bartlett) is dating the 28-year old African-American Ben (Charlie Barnett). Margot Park (May Hong) and Jake Rodriguez (Garcia) are a queer couple; Margot is a young lesbian whose lesbian partner has transitioned to male and who is now struggling with what his transition means for his sexuality. The bisexual Shawna Hawkins (Ellen Page) is Brian and Mary Ann’s adoptive daughter, but thinks she is their biological child. Mary Ann’s decision to leave Brian and Shawna for career reasons has estranged her from both of them. Shawna is casually involved with Claire (Zosia Mamet), a film-maker who is chronicling the decline of San Francisco’s queer spaces. Most of these characters are new creations, not drawn from any of Maupin’s books.
The result is a show divided between its strangely-young Boomers and its earnest Millennials/iGens and over which a certain tension between past and present hovers. The show presents three spaces of importance to the queer community: Compton’s Cafeteria, a now long-closed late-night gathering place for the trans community in the 1960s; 28 Barbary Lane, which is now a “legendary” place at which the LGBT community gathers for occasional parties; and the Body Politic, a queer feminist co-op Burlesque bar which is only the most recent incarnation of a string of lesbian bars and clubs stretching back decades.
The three spaces are strung together mostly by Claire, who is making a documentary about the loss of these spaces. The history of Compton’s Cafeteria plays a major role in episode 8 (I’ll deal with that in a later post) and Claire laments that all that’s left of it is a shuttered building and an historical marker. She interviews women at Body Politic who tell her about the importance of that space, including an unnamed lesbian (played by Fortune Feimster) who emphasizes that queer spaces like the Body Politic can literally save people’s lives. The main plot of the season involves a mysterious blackmailer who forces Anna to give them the title to 28 Barbary Lane so that it can be torn down. This is presented as not merely a threat to the residents’ living situation, but also as an existential threat to the San Francisco queer community, which rallies to stage a sit-in when the wrecking crew comes to tear the down. So a central theme of the season is the historical value of spaces where LGBT people are dominant.
The show understands the importance of history, but it avoids directly addressing the biggest facet of queer history in San Francisco, namely the AIDS Crisis. The third season ends in 1981 with only the most subtle hint of the tidal wave that was about to hit; one of Michael’s lovers mentions having what he takes to be a hickey on his neck. The fourth season begins in the present, after AIDS has been brought under control, thus leap-frogging two decades of staggering death. In a series that aims for gentle humor, that’s an understandable choice.
But it’s strange that the show only addresses AIDS in indirect ways. Michael is HIV+, as is a former lover of his. They are both seen with a bottle of pills for treating HIV, but if the viewer doesn’t know what Truvada is, the significance of it will go over their head. Michael visits a doctor who confirms that it’s safe for him to have sex without a condom, but he frets about asking Ben to do that. At one point, Ben finds Michael’s ‘little black book’ and sees that many of the names are crossed out of it, but the viewer is left to intuit that this means that Michael has lost an enormous number of friends to AIDS. The only time we see the psychological weight of the AIDS Crisis is a passing comment, made after Anna dies, that mourning gets easier with time. For those familiar with the AIDS Crisis, this is reasonable storytelling, but for the younger generation of gay men, many of whom are unaware of the scope of the mortality, I’m not sure the show makes its point as clearly as it thinks it does.
The show does depict a generational clash taking place in the LGBT community. In the sharpest scene in the season, Michael and Ben attend a dinner party of gay men in the 50s and 60s. Ben, the youngest person in the room by about two decades, takes offense when one of the other men jokes about “Mexican trannies”. Another guest then lambasts Ben for not understanding how much of a struggle gay men had in the 80s and 90s, living under a government that literally didn’t care if they lived or died and suggests that Ben should recognize that his privileges as a gay man in the 2010s were won with the struggles of that older generation. In a different scene, when the unnamed lesbian tells Claire about her life history for the documentary, Claire asks to redo the interview and avoid what she considers problematic language; the lesbian essentially tells her to fuck off and walks away. Mary Ann challenges Shawna’s assertion that burlesque can be a feminist act, explaining that in the 70s, her generation was fighting to not be treated as sex objects.
But while the show is willing to depict this clash, its sympathies seem to be with the younger generation’s view of things. After the dinner party, Michael apologizes for not coming to Ben’s defense and Ben points out that as a black man, he knows very well what it feels like to have the government not care about his welfare. Shawna responds to Mary Ann’s challenge by persuading her to get up and perform a song, which Mary Ann finds a liberating experience. The unnamed lesbian doesn’t offer any persuasive response to Claire, just a rude one.
It’s hard for me to shake the sense that the show doesn’t really like its older characters. Their past choices are shown to be largely bad ones. In the books, Mary Ann and Brian part amicably, but in the show Mary Ann essentially abandoned Brian and Shawna, a decision that has left Brian unable to date for 20 years and which has left Shawna with a powerful sense that she is unworthy of love. The career Mary Ann left to chase never truly materialized and instead she’s wound up in a marriage that has soured on her. Brian and Anna have compounded Mary Ann’s bad decision by failing to tell Shawna that she is actually the biological child of one of Mary Ann’s friends who died soon after childbirth, as if being adopted was a shameful secret that Shawna needs to be protected from. The last three episodes excoriate Anna by revealing that she has lived for half a century with a terrible secret, namely that the money she used to purchase Barbary Lane and pay for her gender confirmation surgery was given to her by a police officer who had been extorting it from trans prostitutes. When Anna dies, she wills Barbary Lane to an old trans friend, with a note that it should have been hers a long time ago. Only Michael has nothing to apologize for in his past.
In my opinion, the scenarios the show offers are too complex for the easy answers it offers. Ben’s lack of racial privilege doesn’t automatically trump the lack of privilege gay men encountered in the 1980s during the AIDS Crisis; both groups suffered the indifference and hostility of the government in different ways. Anna’s choice to take the money has to be set against the potential life-or-death context of her decision (since it’s explicitly said that trans women don’t usually survive to Anna’s age), and the show never considers that, had she not taken the money, Barbary Lane wouldn’t have become the vital queer space that the show positions it as. Mary Ann’s second-wave feminism isn’t wrong; it’s just a different perspective on how women should relate to sex. The debate over terms such as “tranny” is still playing out in the LGBT community and hasn’t yet been resolved; it’s worth pointing out that for many older gay men, the word ‘queer’ is profoundly insulting while for the younger generation, it’s a reclaimed identity.
What the show offers as a clash of generations feels (at least to this cynical Gen Xer) rather more like the younger generation repudiating the choices made by the older one. It seems fitting that the season’s villain is an angry 20-something seeking to simultaneously chronicle and destroy 28 Barbary Lane.
Want to Know More?
The current season of Tales of the Cityis available on Netflix. The first season (the 1993) is available through Amazon. The second and third seasons can be found on Youtube. The novels are delightful and justly loved by many readers. You can get the first three collected as 28 Barbary Lane.