Netflix brings back some of Maupin’s magic world, just when we needed it.
by Eric C. Peterson
When I was still closeted, even to myself, a colleague at work who could clearly see the little gay man inside me trying to escape, asked me if I’d ever heard of an author named Armistead Maupin. I hadn’t.
She proceeded to tell me about Tales of the City, then a six-volume series that began as daily newspaper columns and were later anthologized in book form. She didn’t go into detail about any of the characters, but praised the books as, on one hand, an easy breezy read — and on the other, a time capsule of a very particular time and place: San Francisco in the mid-1970s. “Sounds interesting,” I probably said.
The next day, she presented me with Volume 1: Tales of the City, and practically ordered me to read it. I obeyed, and immediately fell in love with Mary Ann, Mouse, Mona Ramsey, and Anna Madrigal. Reading the books didn’t cause me to spontaneously combust in a cloud of pink glitter as my co-worker had probably hoped, but she did smile when I returned her book and asked if I could borrow Volume 2.
When PBS aired the first six-episode Tales of the City miniseries in 1994, I had read all six books. Remarkably, I was still closeted, but barely. I almost didn’t want to watch it, because I was afraid it would disappoint. It didn’t. The brilliant cast under the sublime direction of Alastair Reid brought the story to life in a way that I could not have predicted. The dialogue was sometimes word-for-word what Maupin had originally wrote, and yet felt real, honest, and of-the-moment — which either says something about Maupin’s ear, the talent of these incredible actors, or likely both.
So, I should have been thrilled to learn that Netflix would be returning us to 28 Barbary Lane in a new limited series. And I was…but cautious, all the same. One particular detail tempered my expectations and that was that this rendering would take place in present-day San Francisco, but several roles (notably Mary Ann, Brian, and Mrs. Madrigal) would be played by the original actors who brought the 70s to life in the mid-90s.
Of course, in the end, I couldn’t resist and I watched it anyway.
Don’t misunderstand; I never got over the whole math thing. When Mouse (now played by Looking’s Murray Barlett), a 54-year old man, was explaining to his boyfriend in 2019 what it was like in the decade before AIDS ravaged the gay community, all I could think was, “when you were seven?!”
And so, my biggest complaint about the show is that there was absolutely no reason not to set this story in 1999 (after the first “tech boom,” when gentrification and the loss of the city’s identity were also pressing issues), so that the timelines and plotlines could have all made perfect sense. The only loss would have been two social media performance artists who call themselves the “twinfluencers” (which would have improved the show significantly, to be honest).
I will admit that during the first few episodes, I was much more invested in catching up with the characters I was familiar with than investing my energies in the new faces at Barbary Lane. But as the series progressed, I found the stories of Shawna, Jake, Margot, and Ben to be compelling and the performances genuine. (I never did connect with the grating “twinfluencers,” but perhaps I’m not the target audience there.)
About halfway through, I was practically getting a contact high from the secondhand smoke emanating from Mrs. Madrigal’s magic manse when the best scene in the series hit me across the head: a scathing indictment of the racism and transphobia that still exists in the most privileged corners of our community, featuring a spectacular cameo by Stephen Spinella, who still feels the pain of the worst days of the AIDS epidemic, but learned all the wrong lessons from surviving the plague. It was an honest critique, surrounded by so much celebration that it served not as a cudgel of shame, but rather as a sincere call to do better.
The very best episode is without a doubt the eighth — a flashback to 1966, a full decade before the original story, featuring Jen Richards as a younger Anna Madrigal, still a pre-operative transgender woman and a brand new transplant in San Francisco — but dangerously naïve to the dangers of living in an outlaw’s body. Written by showrunner Lauren Morelli (Orange Is the New Black) and directed by Alan Poul (Six Feet Under), the hour is a stand-alone masterpiece.
So in the end, I’m happy I went back to 28 Barbary Lane. I often find myself wishing it were a real place. And then, just as often (and just as Maupin likely intended), when I find myself sharing a laugh or a hug with those in our strong-but-tender community…I remember that it is real; you just have to look for it.
Eric Peterson is an avid reader, gay man, pop culture junkie, and the co-host of a podcast about old movies. Go to www.rewindpod.com to learn more, or subscribe to “The Rewind Project” wherever you listen to podcasts.