Decades Later, 'Tales Of The City' Returns To A New San Francisco

Jun 15, 2019
Originally published on June 26, 2019 6:04 pm

A generation after Tales of the City brought a community that hadn't often been represented to mainstream television, the show is back.

The cast of characters includes some you may remember: Laura Linney plays Mary Ann Singleton, a Midwesterner who first came to San Francisco during the time that queer culture was rising and HIV taking its toll; Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal, the pot-growing transgender landlady who presides over the house at 28 Barbary Lane; Paul Gross as Brian, the ex-husband Mary Ann left behind. Murray Bartlett assumes the role of Mary Ann's best friend, Michael "Mouse" Tolliver. And there are new characters played by Ellen Page, Charlie Barnett, Zosia Mamet and Garcia.

The original miniseries, based on novels and serial stories by the author Armistead Maupin, ran on PBS in 1994. A few sequels followed on the Showtime network. And the new reboot, set in the present day, is now streaming on Netflix.

Lauren Morelli is one of the creators of this new series, and its showrunner. She also was a co-producer and writer on Orange Is the New Black. In an interview, she says it was a priority for the new show to be even more diverse, and more inclusive of LGBTQ experiences.

"We really wanted to expand the world and make sure that it felt like the world that we live in, right?" Morelli says. "A lot of the cast members are racially much more diverse than previous seasons. And our ideas of ourselves, as the queer community, continue to expand, which I think is really interesting and important to talk about ... and there are a lot of trans characters on the show now, and it felt really wonderful to get to tell some stories that might not have been told before."


Interview Highlights

Tales of the City showrunner Lauren Morelli was also a co-producer and writer on Orange Is the New Black.
Alison Cohen Rosa / Netflix

On the San Francisco that Mary Ann returns to

We always talk about how San Francisco is a character on the show, and how different the city is now. And I think that's really important to talk about. The city has become so unlivable. We have a couple of different characters who are grappling with that, and Anna Madrigal, played by Olympia Dukakis, at one point announces that she's selling Barbary Lane. Because we just kept having these conversations about, you know: How exactly are these young people affording these apartments? And what happens if Anna Madrigal ... stopped providing a safe space for them?

On the new character Jake

I love Jake. I feel very protective of him. ... So Jake is a young trans man living at Barbary Lane, and he is also Anna Madrigal's caregiver — he's in school to become a nurse. And he's recently transitioned and is in a relationship with his girlfriend Margot. And what that means is they've been together since before Jake's transition — so previous to Jake's transition, the two of them would have been in a lesbian relationship. So they're both negotiating the loss of their obvious queer identity, I'll call it, right? When they're walking down the street now it looks like a man and a woman in a straight heteronormative relationship.

The transgender character Jake, played by the non-binary actor Garcia, must now negotiate presenting as a man alongside his partner Margot (May Hong).
Alison Cohn Rosa / Netflix

I think we watch the two of them negotiate what that means for both of themselves. They desperately still want to be together, and yet there's a real friction in what they both want and need. And also, Jake is going through another transition, and is starting to wonder if perhaps he is also gay — if he is attracted to men.

On the intergenerational tension within the LGBTQ community in the show

This was the theme that I was the most excited about. These are the conversations we're not having yet, because we've just arrived at this point where we have some basic human rights that the community had been denied for so long. But I think in order to fight to get those rights, we've had to present ourselves as a unified monolith, and behind closed doors that's not the case.

There is a generation of people, specifically men, who survived the AIDS epidemic, who buried so many of their friends, and I think so much of that grief has been erased. Culturally, they've never been able to publicly grieve in the way that they deserved to. And so I think that, at least from my own perspective, there's something happening where, rather than the torch getting passed down, we're all individually grasping for the torch, right? The younger generation is saying: No, you have to let go, and let us expand this community, and use words that we want to use, and identify the way we want to identify. And this older generation who feels like they — rightfully so — have never been really seen for that fight that they went through is saying: You need to recognize us before ... we can crack that open and be a little more expansive within the community.

On wanting the show to be a safe space

I think, for whatever reason, compassion and empathy and forgiveness are not cool, hip things to be right now or to talk about. I think we're much more invested in fighting and anger, and I understand why — but that's really what we tried to accomplish on the show. Certainly these are people who are making mistakes, but ultimately there's a lot of forgiveness, there's a lot of reckoning and there's just a deep amount of empathy. And I think empathy can be just as radical as anger. And I hope it reminds us that it's a really valuable tool to be connected to, and in that way, I think — I hope — it will make people feel safe.

Ned Wharton and Alexander McCall produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The generation after "Tales Of The City" brought a new range of characters from a community that hadn't often been seen in mainstream entertainment in millions of homes, "Tales Of The City" returns for a new generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TALES OF THE CITY")

MURRAY BARTLETT: (As Mouse) Someone tell me I'm hallucinating because I know this can't be real.

LAURA LINNEY: (As Mary Ann Singleton) Oh, Mouse.

BARTLETT: (As Mouse) Mary Ann Singleton returns to Barbary Lane.

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: (As Anna Madrigal) Oh, my dear.

SIMON: The cast of characters includes some you may remember. Laura Linney is Mary Ann, a Midwesterner who comes to San Francisco in the time that queer culture is rising and HIV is taking a toll. Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal, the pot-growing landlady who presides over the house on Barbary Lane. Paul Gross is Brian, the ex-husband Marianne left in San Francisco. Murray Bartlett is Mary Ann's best friend, Michael "Mouse" Tolliver. And new characters that include Ellen Page, Charlie Barnett, Zosia Mamet and Garcia.

Lauren Morelli is one of the creators of the new series and the show runner. She was also a co-producer and writer on "Orange Is The New Black." She joins us now from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

LAUREN MORELLI: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: I've got to point out, as I get that the series gets into - I've just seen the first couple of episodes that (laughter) - Mary Ann has certainly returned to a markedly different San Francisco, hasn't she?

MORELLI: Yes, she has (laughter). We always talk about how San Francisco is a character on the show and how different the city is now, and I think that's really important to talk about. The city has become so unlivable. We have a couple of different characters who are grappling with that. And Anna Madrigal, played by Olympia Dukakis, at one point announces that she's selling Barbary Lane because we just kept having these conversations about, you know, how exactly are these young people (laughter) affording these apartments, and what happens if Anna Madrigal never, you know, stopped providing a safe space for them?

SIMON: Yeah. The cast is even more diverse than the original - isn't it? - ethnically, but also in terms of identification.

MORELLI: Yeah, very much so. We really wanted to expand the world and make sure that it felt like the world that we live in, right? So as you said, a lot of the cast members are racially much more diverse than previous seasons. And our ideas of ourselves as the queer community continue to expand, which I think is really interesting and important to talk about. And so we're trying to tell a lot more of those stories. And there are a lot of trans characters on the show now. And it felt really wonderful to get to tell some stories that might not have been told before.

SIMON: Well, that brings me to - I find a very compelling storyline, Jake, played by Garcia.

MORELLI: Yeah, I love Jake. I feel very protective of him.

SIMON: If you can set that up for us, please.

MORELLI: Sure. So Jake is a young trans man living at Barbary Lane. And he's also Anna Madrigal's caregiver. He's in school to become a nurse. And he's recently transitioned and is in a relationship with his girlfriend Margot. And what that means is they've been together since before Jake's transition. So previous to Jake's transition, the two of them would have been in a lesbian relationship. So they're both negotiating the loss of their obvious queer identity - I'll call it - right? When they're walking down the street now, it looks like a man and a woman in a straight heteronormative relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TALES OF THE CITY")

MAY HONG: (As Margot) Did you hear what that lady said to me at the bakery?

GARCIA: (As Jake) About our kids, yeah.

HONG: (As Margot) She thought we were straight, Jake.

GARCIA: (As Jake) So she thought we were straight.

HONG: (As Margot) You're excited.

GARCIA: (As Jake) No, I'm not.

MORELLI: (As Margot) You're passing, and you're excited.

GARCIA: (As Jake) What's wrong with that?

HONG: (As Margot) I swear to God, if you start on your gender-as-a-construct speech right now, I will throw this cake at you.

MORELLI: I think we watch the two of them negotiate what that means for both of themselves. They desperately still want to be together, and yet there's a real friction in what they both want and need. And also, Jake is going through another transition and is starting to wonder if perhaps he is also gay, if he's attracted to men.

SIMON: Yeah. A theme I wasn't quite expecting was intergenerational tension. Some of the younger LGBTQ people think their elders can be short-sighted, and the veterans of those first battles for gay pride and respect can feel disrespected, can't they?

MORELLI: Yes. This was the theme that I was the most excited about. These are the conversations we're not having yet because we've just arrived at this point where we have some basic human rights that the community had been denied for so long. But I think in order to fight to get those rights, we've had to present ourselves as a unified monolith. And behind closed doors, that's not the case. There is a generation of people, specifically men, who survived the AIDS epidemic, who buried so many of their friends. And I think so much of that grief has been erased culturally. They've never been able to publicly grieve in the way that they deserved to.

And so I think that, at least from my own perspective, there's something happening where, rather than the torch getting passed down, we're all individually grasping for the torch, right? The younger generation is saying, no, you have to let go and let us expand this community and use words that we want to use and identify the way to identify. And this older generation, who feels like they, rightfully so, have never been really seen for that fight that they went through, is saying, you need to recognize us before, I think, we can crack that open and be a little more expansive within the community.

SIMON: Yeah. I have read in interviews, or at least in one interview, you have given where you say you want the show to be a safe space.

MORELLI: Yes.

SIMON: Can an honest drama really do that for everyone?

MORELLI: I hope so. I think, for whatever reason, compassion and empathy and forgiveness are not cool, hip things to be right now (laughter) or to talk about. I think we're much more invested in fighting and anger, and I understand why. But that's really what we tried to accomplish on the show. Certainly, these are people who are making mistakes, but ultimately, there's a lot of forgiveness, there's a lot of reckoning, and there's just a deep amount of empathy. And I think empathy can be just as radical as anger. And I hope it reminds us that it's a really valuable tool to be connected to. And in that way, I think - I hope - it will make people feel safe.

SIMON: Lauren Morelli, one of the co-creators and writers of "Tales Of The City," now on Netflix, thank you so much for being with us.

MORELLI: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY WADLEY'S "TALES OF THE CITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.