Wide Angle

My Tales of the City

Armistead Maupin’s stories helped me embrace San Francisco 40 years ago. The new Netflix series brings it all back.

Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis laugh while smoking cigarettes on a loveseat in this still from Tales of the City.
Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis in Tales of the City. Nino Munoz/Netflix

At the beginning of the latest and most thoroughly adorable television adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels, a documentarian asks Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) how much she thinks San Francisco has changed in the past 50 years. “Not much,” the 90-year-old landlady replies—in flagrant violation of a long-standing municipal tradition. Way back in 1958’s Vertigo, a character complains to Jimmy Stewart that the city isn’t what it used to be, a refrain that always gets a laugh from local audiences. But Anna will have none of that nostalgia. “We’re still people,” she insists to her interlocutor: “Flawed, narcissistic, doing our best.”

Just how well Maupin’s dream of San Francisco has held together in the 21st century is the question that runs through this new version of Tales of the City, currently streaming on Netflix. It’s set in the present, although the chronology is a bit cockeyed. Characters like Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Murray Bartlett) and his straight best friend, Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), a self-described “white bread girl from Ohio,” are middle-aged—but a good 15 to 20 years younger than they ought to be, given that they appeared in the first incarnation of Tales, a serialized newspaper column that began in the mid-1970s. But despite Maupin’s incorporation of current LGBTQ culture into each new installment, the Tales novels have always had a slightly otherworldly quality. Time passes differently inside the sunny, sudsy world where they’re set.

For a lot of people who lived in San Francisco between the mid-’70s and the late ’90s, Tales of the City has a status somewhere between manifesto and sacred text. It showed its LGBTQ readers what one devotee described as “the first depiction of happy gay life,” and it showed its equally numerous straight fans how much richer, deeper, and fun a truly inclusive society can be.

I was one of those fans. I arrived in the Bay Area in 1978, younger than Mary Ann Singleton but (as a Californian whose parents had a couple of gay friends) not quite so green. It was a daunting place when I arrived, at the tail end of a period of strung-out, apocalyptic violence. The Zebra murders and the Patty Hearst kidnapping were not that far in the past, and even more unsettling than being abducted by crackpot radicals was the idea that they could turn you into an entirely different person while you were in their clutches. A few weeks after I moved to Berkeley, 918 members of the Peoples Temple, many of them people of color seeking a new social order, died by mass suicide in Guyana. Because the church had a large center in San Francisco and its mad leader, Jim Jones, was well-connected among the city’s elites, local media covered the baffling massacre as if it had taken place right in town. Less than 10 days later a disgruntled local politician shot both the mayor and Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay supervisor, right at City Hall.

“Is this what it’s like here?” I remember asking myself as these catastrophes went down. Was adulthood really a matter of navigating random killings, messianic doomsday gurus, and machine-gun toting radicals? Even to a child of liberal parents who had opposed the Vietnam War, the chaos thrown off by the social change of the 1960s was scary. For the first time, I began to regularly read a daily newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, in an effort make sense of it all. In the Chronicle’s pages I found a confusing column full of short paragraphs, breezy dialogue, and references to people I’d never heard of. It was fiction, something I’d never seen in a newspaper before, and called “Tales of the City.” Everybody who lived in San Francisco and its environs seemed to follow it avidly and talked as if its characters were their intimate friends.

In one of the first columns I read, a male character was romanced by a closeted movie star whose name was rendered, intriguingly, as a pair of dashes. (Only much later would I learn that Maupin himself had had an affair with Rock Hudson.) The world was far more interesting than I’d ever suspected! Then the character, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, went home to confide in his best friend, Mary Ann Singleton, with whom he shared a bond that I envied madly, at least until I found a series of gay best friends of my own.

Then and even now, friendships between gay men and straight women get dismissed as something of a joke: “I will not assume that women who like me are fag hags,” was one of Mouse’s resolutions back in 1977. But Sex and the City be damned: I was closer to those men in that city than I’ve ever been to any woman. They introduced me to drag queens, lesbians, performance artists, sex workers, gender outlaws, socialites, pot dealers, nonagenarian communists, and guys who were obsessed with Joan Didion. We bared our hearts and had our fair share of outlandish escapades. My sense that anything might happen in the city once provoked dread; these men transformed that feeling into one of exhilaration. Change was all around us, and change was fabulous—at least within the bubble of our bay-bound peninsula. Nothing could be more unthinkable, more miserable, than the prospect of going “home” to the suburbs and small towns we’d fled. Tales of the City, although it belonged to an older generation of San Franciscans, was our comfort food and affirmation: our bible. When a plague came to rip the dream of San Francisco from our hands, it told that story, too, and helped us hold onto it by the skin of our teeth.

A still from the 1993 Tales of the City adaptation featuring Laura Linney at the Marina Dateway.
A still from the 1993 Tales of the City adaptation featuring Laura Linney at the Marina Dateway. Acorn Media Group and PBS

We saw our infatuation with Tales mirrored in visitors from around the country and then, when the 1993 TV adaptation (a British co-production with PBS) aired in the U.K., around the world. To this day, you can still run into English tourists wandering through the intersection of Leavenworth and Taylor looking for Macondray Lane, the inspiration for the fictional Barbary Lane where the pot- and wisdom-dispensing Anna ran her cozy, wood-frame apartment house, collecting an assortment of eccentrics, bohemians, and lonely hearts. The San Francisco Maupin depicted, and that so many readers have yearned for, was pluralistic, sybaritic, and—underneath the wild plot twists and tragedies—fundamentally joyful. It captured, for all sorts of people, exactly what they wanted urban life to be: an environment where it was possible not merely to be accepted for your true self, but to be embraced and celebrated.

In Maupin’s fictional universe, 28 Barbary Lane is the mystic heart of this city, and Anna Madrigal is its high priestess. The new Netflix series incorporates plot elements of the two final Tales novels—Mary Ann in Autumn and The Days of Anna Madrigal—but it also rewrites the characters’ stories significantly. To raise the stakes, this new story line puts 28 Barbary Lane itself in peril, with a preposterous blackmail plot that affords the opportunity to set an entire episode in 1966, depicting how Anna (played by transgender actress Jen Richards) first came to the city. A suitably Maupinian contraption full of cliffhangers, escapades, buried secrets, and outrageous reversals, the new series is the work of an entirely queer writers’ room, an act of baton-passing that must make Maupin proud. When he began writing Tales, Maupin’s fictional counterpart was the young, wistfully romantic Michael. Now that Maupin is 75 and the closest thing San Francisco has to an official bard and ambassador, the keeper of the last rainbow-colored flame still burning there, it’s clear he’s become Anna Madrigal herself.

Claire, the documentary filmmaker interviewing Anna in the new Netflix series, says she’s making a record of “queer community and its dissolution as a result of the strangling grip that capitalism has on San Francisco.” But apart from some rueful jokes about the city’s housing crisis (at one point, an apartment-hunting character is invited to rent out a homeowner’s extra bathroom), the social world of this Tales is much the same as it ever was, a funky, easy mélange of orientations, races, genders, and ages. Michael still lives at 28 Barbary Lane, along with Shawna (Ellen Page), the adoptive daughter of Mary Ann and reformed lothario Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross, like Linney and Dukakis reprising the role he played in the 1993 series). New tenants include Jake (Garcia), who’s transgender, and his longtime girlfriend, Margot (May Hong). Shawna tends bar at a cooperative queer burlesque club called Body Politic. Ben (Charlie Barnett), Michael’s 28-year-old boyfriend, supposedly works in tech, but nobody in the series ever talks about how that industry has transformed the city culturally and demographically, as well as economically—making it more white, male, and straight.

Instead, this new Tales dwells on the evolution of what it means to be queer (and queer friendly) in the 21st century. Perhaps the most telling exchange happens between Claire (played with lockjawed froideur by Zosia Mamet) and an unnamed minor character, a butch woman who, during her filmed interview, describes growing up in the kind of small town that’s “known for two things: peanuts and evangelists.” What saved her life, she maintains, was the “little gay bar” her “dyke PE teacher” told her about. “You know the gays have always made spaces for the freaks and weirdos,” she goes on. Claire stops the camera and asks the woman to repeat the speech, replacing “freaks” and “weirdos”—unacceptably “judgy words”—with “marginalized outsiders.” “How about I say ‘Go fuck yourself’?” is the woman’s reply before she stalks away.

Writer Armistead Maupin of the film "The Night Listener" poses for a portrait at the Getty Images Portrait Studio during the 2006 Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2006 in Park City, Utah.
Armistead Maupin in 2006. Mark Mainz/Getty Images

This isn’t the only argument over language in the series. At a dinner party, Ben finds himself surrounded by older gay men who kick into a gear that can only be described as “bitchy,” recounting an inadvertent visit to a “tranny bar” in Mexico. Ben objects, and gets a lecture from one of the other guests about how “your generation,” while enjoying the freedoms fought for by gay men his age, fails to appreciate the ordeals suffered in obtaining them. He’s not entirely wrong: Earlier in the episode, Ben goes snooping through Michael’s keepsakes and finds an old address book in which almost all of the men’s names have been crossed out. He can’t know what it felt like to bury most of his friends before the age of 30. But what was the point of enduring all that prejudice and mistreatment if you’re just going to pass it along to someone more downtrodden? The scene is a shrewd callback to an episode in the very first Tales, when Michael attends a dinner party of “A-gays”—well-off, well-connected snobs—and decides that’s not the kind of gay man he wants to be.

The dispute over “freaks and weirdos” is different, however. Claire’s subject is closer to her in age, but more important, this woman sees “freaks and weirdos” not as an insult but as an identity in its own right. It’s an umbrella even bigger than “queer” because it includes everyone who, for whatever reason, felt out of place in the world at large. These are the people Anna Madrigal was capable of recognizing on sight even if, like Mary Ann, they appeared to be nothing more than a “white bread girl from Ohio.” In the final episode of the series, Anna’s tenants recall feeling “summoned” to Barbary Lane. “She was the one person who instantly knew that I belonged here,” Mary Ann says of Anna, because “on the inside, I was different.”

The characters in Tales of the City arrived in San Francisco, as marginalized outsiders long have, because they couldn’t find a place to be authentic in the world beyond the city. The original denizens of Barbary Lane were refugees of a sort, and what Anna Madrigal created for them was a snow-globe world where whatever made them freaks and weirdos on the outside became a proud badge of membership within. True, they had their secrets: At first, Anna felt compelled to keep her gender transition hidden. By contrast, though the change hasn’t always been easy, Jake’s Latino family has welcomed his. Margot, his partner through it all, secretly misses “being a lesbian,” but feels too guilty about this lack of supportiveness to tell him so. Still, unlike the young Anna, Jake hasn’t been banished.

Watching this young couple work through the tender, painful tangle of their feelings for each other is as classic an element of the Tales experience as the blackmail plot and Mary Ann’s inept efforts to play detective. It grounds the series in experiences everyone with a sufficiently open heart can relate to. Of course, it’s still far from safe to be a man like Jake in the world outside the city (and sometimes in it), but he has a little foothold there, a family that’s just fine with who he is in addition to what Anna calls the “logical family” of unrelated lifelong friends at 28 Barbary Lane. Fighting for his own right to exist and to be loved is not the only thing on Jake’s mind, and Tales in some small way helped to make that possible.

As enchanting and alluring as they are, 28 Barbary Lane and the city around it seem not quite enough for the younger characters in these new Tales, not in the way similar little utopias were for me and the friends of my youth. That’s as it should be. Anna, Michael, Mary Ann, and the rest of the original gang built an enclave, a new kind of home, in San Francisco, which was a fine accomplishment in its day. But why be satisfied with just a corner of the world, however lovely? Why limit all that happiness to Barbary Lane? There’s a reason the series ends with Shawna setting out for parts unknown. She’s got a job ahead of her, and not an easy one. Fortunately, she was raised by the very best people: freaks and weirdos.