Tales of the City - Season 1 - Review: It's a Bit of Magic, Isn't it? By Abby Crofton (June 14, 2019, 2:00 pm)
Tales of the City
Families are messy, and not every member has to like one another. And that is okay - you don't have to like someone to love them. This holds true for the family based at 28 Barbary Lane. They might not be able to stand each other at times, but the love is there, even if reluctantly.
The first season of Netflix's "Tales of the City" is the latest in a long line of adaptations of author Armistead Maupin's works. Many of the show's characters were introduced in a book of the same name published in 1978 that detailed the lives of the residents of an apartment building in San Fransisco. The novel later spawned several sequels, a television miniseries, radio shows, and even a musical.
A continuation of the miniseries, which aired its first season in 1993, Netflix's season has several original cast members reprising their roles. There are also new additions that bring varying degrees of success to the greater narrative but who are no less members of the found family centered around Anna Madrigal, the matriarch of Barbary Lane, originally and currently played by Olympia Dukakis.
The season begins with Anna celebrating her 90th birthday. The party is being filmed by Claire, a documentarian played by Zosia Mamet, for a film about the queer history of San Fransisco. The occasion brings Mary Ann Singleton, who left San Fransisco over twenty years ago for her career, back to Barbary Lane. That is where a young Mary Ann and a number of other wanderers with no other place to go, most of who belonged to the queer community, were welcomed throughout the years by Anna.
Mary Ann, played by Laura Linney in the original miniseries and the current continuation, also left behind her husband and daughter when she left San Fransisco. She has hopes of reconciling with her daughter, Shawna, during the visit but her optimism is deservedly crushed by Shawna's hostility to the mother she hasn't had contact with since she was two years old.
Ellen Page plays Shawna as both a rock to her community, which includes the residents of Barbary Lane as well as the surrounding neighborhood, and a woman seemingly content to keep deeper relationships at arm's length. When she does open herself up emotionally it is to the wrong people - a pretentious couple who she meets in a bar and has a threesome with, and Claire, who sleeps with Shawna a couple of times and then pushes her away just as Shawna herself had done to previous hook ups. We learn later that Claire was a very, very bad decision on Shawna's part.
Rounding out the main cast are Brian, Mary Ann's ex-husband and Shawna's father, played by Paul Gross who originated the character and now returns, and Murray Bartlett taking over the role of friend-to-all Michael Tolliver. These characters make up the core of the Barbary Lane family, brought together years ago by Anna and now thrust back together again.
We follow these characters for the season as they search for love and try to come to terms with themselves and their places in the world. The show has a soap opera vibe to it, with various couples cheating on each other and multiple people holding multiple secrets. The reveal of the season-long villain had an almost Scooby Doo quality - during the obligatory villain rant I almost expected "those meddling kids" to be blamed for the antagonist's failure. But as we spend more time with the main characters I couldn't help but root for them. Or at least most of them.
Mary Ann is one of the more infuriating characters currently on television. She is annoyingly persistent and prone to bulldozing over others' feelings in order to make herself feel better. She is shocked to learn that Shawna is unaware that her biological mother died in childbirth and that Mary Ann and Brian are her adoptive parents. When Mary Ann argues that if Shawna knew it wasn't her real mother who left her then their relationship would improve I had to roll my eyes. Luckily all the other characters shared my incredulity about that line of thinking.
Mary Ann's attempts to connect with Shawna are cringeworthy and when Shawna begins to thaw to her it's less about Mary Ann's actions and more about Shawna wanting to connect with her mother. The first episode ends on the bittersweet discovery of Shawna's collection of VHS tapes of a morning show hosted by Mary Ann. Up to that point Shawna had been standoffish and hostile to Mary Ann, but as Shawna sits in the dark and watches as Mary Ann greets her audience we see Shawna with a wistful expression on her face.
Plenty of characters get fed up with Mary Ann, from her ex-husband who still somehow carries a torch for her, to her best friend Michael who supports her even when he knows better. When Michael's boyfriend Ben, played by Charlie Barnett, expressed exasperation at Mary Ann's antics I couldn't help but agree with him. But Linney plays Mary Ann with an earnestness and energy that makes the character somewhat bearable.
Micheal and Ben also get their own story line. After dating for six months their twenty-plus years age gap becomes more noticeable as they struggle with coming from different generations. Michael is HIV positive and matured during a time when that was a death sentence. The younger Ben struggles less with Michael's status than Michael himself does. For Ben, being HIV positive is more of a treatable condition than a terminal illness - he's on the medication PrEP to prevent infection and is ready for his and Michael's relationship to move to the next level physically.
Their differences are brought to a head at a dinner party hosted by Michael's ex Harrison (Matthew Risch) where Ben calls out the racist and transphobic language used by the other guests, all older gay white men. The men refuse to be lectured to by someone who hadn't lived their same experiences of having watched friends and loved ones die in the AIDS crisis. They feel that they've earned the right to express themselves among friends however they wish while Ben points out that as a black man he's experienced his own issues. It's a moving scene that reminds the viewer that people are still grappling with the consequences of an entire generation of gay men being decimated by an epidemic.
It is also the beginning of the end of Michael and Ben's relationship. Ben's jealousy of Harrison and Michael's attachment to Barbary Lane puts them under additional strain. They break up later but the season ends on a more ambiguous note for the couple.
The character most neglected is Brian. It's hard to understand him still pining away for Mary Ann twenty-three years after their divorce. When he tells a date that he still has trouble separating his feelings for Mary Ann after all those years she leaves and I can't blame her. He and his neighbor Wren (Michelle Buteau) try a friends with benefits arrangement that Brian quickly messes up by coming on too strong. When he and Mary Ann sleep together I was literally yelling at the screen for him not to do it. I was hoping that Brian would finally exorcise his feelings for Mary Ann but they are closer than ever at the end of the season. At least he seems like a great dad.
A new generation of Barbary Lane residents is lead by Jake and Margot (Garcia and May Hong) who start the season as a couple very much in love but who encounter difficulties in dealing with Jake's transition. Jennifer and Jonathon (Ashley Park and Christopher Larkin) are twins who mostly serve as comedic relief as they represent the Instagram-fueled influencer culture.
Jake and Margot get arcs together as a couple and also individually. Margot becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her relationship with Jake - she met him pre-transition and misses being in a lesbian relationship. Jake is having his own issues as a previously absent attraction to men has him looking outside of his relationship with Margot. When he proposes an open relationship and Margot responds that she wants to be in a monogamous relationship they were pretty much done as a couple.
The demise of their relationship sends Jake back home to his family which is supportive but not the most sensitive. His mother (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is quick to treat him as if she would a son, including forcing him into stereotypical gender roles. Jake slowly realizes that he is not the same person in a different body. He has fundamentally changed since his transition, which is capped in the last episode by his coming out to Margot as they share a sweet dance.
Margot meanwhile develops a flirtation with Mary Ann's friend DeDe (returning original cast member Barbara Garrick). Their May-December romance is a welcome respite for both lonely women and the source of some comedic moments. DeDe is also hosting Mary Ann's stay in San Fransisco, much to the displeasure of DeDe's butler (Dickie Hearts). Yes, DeDe is rich enough to have a butler and at one point she becomes a "Best White Ally" on social media with the help of the twins. While played for laughs, DeDe seems to blossom while in the orbit of the Barbary Lane kids, going from sadly day drinking with Mary Ann to being welcomed into the San Fransisco queer community.
There is also a season-long mystery involving Anna which culminates in episode 8. In that episode we flashback to a younger Anna (Jen Richards) coming to San Fransisco in the 1960s from Minneapolis, leaving behind her family, including a daughter, to live her life as a transwoman. In San Fransisco Anna finds a trans community which she is not immediately welcomed into. Anna can pass in society, which saves her from much of the abuse from the police that the other transwomen are subjected to.
With her wardrobe more fitting for 1956 than 1966 Anna stands out in her neighborhood. She tells Ysela (Daniela Vega), another transwoman who is more cautious, that she wants to be a "true lady." Ysela scoffs, more concerned with survival than dreams. Things seem to look up for Anna - she finds a job and friends, and eventually a love interest, Tommy, played by Luke Kirby. I will admit I held my breath waiting for when Tommy finds out about Anna - so many stories about the transgender community involve violence. And Tommy does find about Anna - he's a police officer that sees her at a trans hangout as the police extort the owner for protection money. But no violence between them occurs.
Anna and Tommy break up, but in a twist Tommy wants to later reconcile, and for a little while they seem happy. But there is a push and pull with Anna - she is with a police officer who is part of a unit that steals from and brutalizes her friends. When Anna is arrested during a confrontation involving the police and other transwomen her relationship with Tommy ends but not before he gives her much of his ill-gotten money, which she uses to transition and buy Barbary Lane.
The contrast between Anna and Ysela is interesting. Ysela prefers to fight, to be on the streets and out in the community. Anna, on the other hand, sequestered herself up on the hill in Barbary Lane, creating a save haven for the LGBT community. Ysela resents Anna for her lack of fight and Anna herself feels shame about how she acquired Barbary Lane and turned her back on her friends. This shame that she has kept for fifty years leads to her being blackmailed by an unknown figure: if Anna refuses to turn the deed to Barbary Lane over to a shell company then the world will find out that she used blood money to finance her successful life.
It is surprising when Anna agrees and the announcement that she is selling Barbary Lane comes as a shock to the residents and they scramble to find new accommodations. Michael, the longest serving renter, has trouble navigating the San Fransisco housing market, while the twins scam their way into DeDe's guest house. Mary Ann and Shawna, however, sense something wrong with Anna's abrupt announcement and they team up to find out what is going on with their beloved friend. This leads to red herrings in the form of Victor Garber as Sam, a volunteer reader who befriends Anna, and Harrison, Michael's ex who Ben is more than willing to see as the bad guy. The two women use the opportunity to bond, and dress in ridiculous yet flattering disguises which made for a great sight gag.
At one point Shawna learns the truth about her parentage and makes a pilgrimage to the East Coast to meet the brother of her birth mother, who she recognizes as a nice enough guy but not her family. Her next stop is to Mary Ann's soon to be ex-husband (Michael Park) who she visits in Connecticut. She wants to understand the life that Mary Ann left her for but sees little success.
While Shawna is on her adventure she misses some pivotal moments at Barbary Lane. The new owner wants to tear the building down and the residents rally to save it. The twins chain themselves to a railing and use social media to drum up attention to their efforts. Mary Ann, Michael and Brian chase down a lead on who might be blackmailing Anna, leading them to a surprising discovery. Jake and Margot make some calls and when an army of rainbow flag waving community members march down the street towards Barbary Lane to a French version of "These Boots Were Made for Walking" it put a smile on my face.
In the end Barbary Lane is saved and the villain is unmasked. When everything seems to be settled the show throws in a shock: Anna dies peacefully in her chair in the courtyard of her home, having been accepted by her family even after her secrets are revealed. The characters speculate that she was finally at peace and was ready to go, having lived a long life that touched many people. We discover that Anna deeded Barbary Lane to Ysela, who she had previously sought forgiveness from for abandoning her all those decades ago, but Ysela tells her that forgiveness was not her's to give. Anna's transfer of Barbary Lane is her final act of atonement and Ysela seems shocked by it.
This season of "Tales of the City" suffered from growing pains and some unevenness, but its heart and characters made it a delight to watch. Much of the cast identify as transgender, gay, lesbian and other queer orientations, which gives the production a powerful authenticity. The writing and acting really came together around the fourth episode. The final four episodes are a joy, finding dramatic highs and producing moments of genuine laughter. The final episode is a tearjerker but the tears are deserved, with one chapter of the story of Barbary Lane closing while teasing the next one.
If we were all as luck to have an Anna, or Michael or Jake to turn to, or a community as welcoming as Barbary Lane, then there would be less loneliness and sadness in the world.
Odds and Ends:
Favorite episode title: Not Today, Satan
Favorite quote: "That bitch is still alive?"
Favorite running joke: Michael's love of "Murder She Wrote"
Favorite laugh out loud moment 1: Michael's limited Italian language skills
Favorite laugh out loud moment 2: Mary Ann's and Shawna's disguises
Is Netflix's continuation a worthy addition to the "Tales of the City" legacy? Does it work as a stand alone story? What were some of your favorite scenes or quotes? Leave your thoughts below!