“Tales of the City” Revisits Gay San Francisco’s past

Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” books, the first of which was published in 1978, gave many readers their first well-rounded cast of LGBT characters. The 1993 miniseries did the same for TV viewers.  Now a new incarnation is back, debuting on Netflix June 7.

Many of the iconic performers are back, including Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton and Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal. The action resumes as Mary Ann comes to San Francisco after leaving 20 years ago to celebrate Anna’s 90th party and gets caught up with her former friends — and new ones — at 28 Barbary Lane. Among the new faces, Murray Bartlett joins the cast as Mouse while Ellen Page plays Mary Ann’s daughter Shawna.

Alan Poul has been involved with all three previous series and is back now as a producer and director for three of the episodes, including the first two. “Basically, after we finished ‘Further Tales,’ the third series in 2001, we were trying to move on with the same team with ‘Babycakes,’ the fourth book,” he says. “It didn’t seem to come together. I didn’t think about continuing the story much after that until a few years ago. Andrew Stern, one of our producers, asked if I wanted to do it again and we tried to determine what form it would take. Do we go back and remake it for a new generation or do we continue the story? My feeling is — as long as we have Laura Linney, no one else can play Mary Ann. Laura came on immediately as did Olympia Dukakis and Armistead. We put together a pitch and took it out. Netflix was always the place we wanted to go.”

The series would not work, he acknowledges, without Linney and Dukakis. “I think they are both brilliant actresses,” Poul says. “They have grown with their characters through all three series. When you have that kind of continuity, there’s an indelible sense of attachment between them and the characters. They have played these people and earned their right to continue. It would be sacrilegious to see someone else playing the roles.”

In working with showrunner Lauren Morelli — one of the writers for “Orange is the New Black” — and an all-queer writing room, it was always clear that Shawna was going to be the major character in their new version. “We thought of Ellen and talked to her and she was interested.  It was written for her. When we began building the younger generation, many of the characters are in the books but there are others that we created. What was important for us was that we be able to show the range of thought about sexuality that comes with a new generation. I am older and I come from a binary world that no longer holds. Because of the brave younger people who are forging their own future in terms of sexuality,  that is something we wanted to depict honestly and proudly.”

The creative team did make the decision to have a new Mouse. It was tricky though since the character has a complicated life. “While he is a delightful person, Mouse has always had an underlying layer of sadness and loss. We wanted to cast a queer actor and we had a lot of enthusiastic response but when we got in a room with Murray, it was clear. What he did was totally separate from what he did with Dom in ‘Looking.’”

It’s been important for Maupin — who was on set a few weeks — to reflect diversity in the new series. “Armistead has said that in 1976, he was writing from the perspective of a white man in a pretty white world — a binary gay, lesbian, straight world. Across the years, he has worked diligently to broaden that and bring in more diversity. In 2019 it was a huge concern for us, but our interests dovetailed nicely.”