The Reel Review
This Netflix reboot of the 1993 and 1998 TV series, based on Armistead Maupin’s popular novels, picks up 23 years later, when straight-laced Mary Ann (Laura Linney) returns to San Francisco’s 28 Barbary Lane to celebrate the 90th birthday of beloved, pot-smoking, transgender boarding house owner Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) and reunite with Shawna (Ellen Page), the daughter she abandoned as an infant.
The ten episode series is far from perfect – several subplots linger too long, there is a silly, contrived blackmail story (harkening to the more melodramatic, soapy vibe of the original novels), and a couple of characters (the brother and sister social media influencers) are downright annoying. But parts of it – in particular, the dinner party fight in episode four, aspects of the Mary Ann/Shawna relationship, and episode nine’s portrait of how Anna came to end up at Barbary Lane in the 1960s – are brilliant.
The earnestness and immense likability of most of the characters makes the timely LGBTQ issues – HIV/PrEP, transphobia, racism, polyamory and family abandonment – even more compelling and relatable. The series shines when its diverse, imperfect characters share their emotions. Keep the hankies handy – Ellen Page is outstanding and WILL make you cry – a lot. And seeing Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney reprise their roles after so many years is beautiful. In the current political climate, this sweet series, a heartfelt love letter to the quirkier, more bohemian San Francisco of prior decades, underscored with a sob-inducing finale, is a fitting tribute to one of the lexicons of the Gay Rights movement.
• The August 1966 riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district was one of the first recorded LGBT-related riots in U.S. history, preceding the more famous 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. It marked the beginning of transgender activism in San Francisco.
• Prior to his first Tales of the City novel in 1978, Armistead Maupin serialized his stories in both the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner. Maupin, 75, published his ninth and final installment, The Days of Anna Madrigal, in 2014. He and his husband currently live in London.
• When the first Tales of the City TV series premiered on PBS in 1993, its depiction of happy, healthy, sexually active LGBTQ people was groundbreaking and extremely controversial. (The Showtime network stepped in after PBS bowed to political threats to defund the network and refused to broadcast the follow up series five years later.)