Netflix released Tales of the City earlier today (Friday, June 7) just in time for Pride month, with the cast packed full of LGBTQ+ talent alongside stars of the original Channel 4 series like Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis. Tales of the City stars Linney as Mary Ann, who returns to San Francisco for her former landlady’s 90th birthday. Netflix viewers can read on for our full review of Tales of the City.
Although Tales in the City is technically a follow-up to the Channel 4 series, which aired on PBS and Showtime in the US, it sets itself up as a new show that viewers can watch without any knowledge of its previous episodes.
As such, a whole host of new characters join Tales of the City, including Margot (played by May Hong) and her newly-transitioned boyfriend Jake (Garcia), Mary Ann’s bisexual daughter Shawna (Ellen Page) and Ben (Charlie Bartlett), a millennial boyfriend to established character Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver (Murray Bartlett).
The series’ best moments mostly come from these characters, as the drama grapples with queer life in the 21st century.
For example, the most affecting plot line comes courtesy of Margot and Jake, as the former struggles with being a lesbian dating a man while the latter questions his sexuality in the wake of his transition.
An LGBTQ+ drama is not an LGBTQ+ drama without a bitchy dinner party scene and Tales of the City has a great one in which Ben questions an older gay man’s use of a transphobic slur and gets an education on the history of the gay rights movement and the AIDS crisis.
Where the series struggles, however, is with its previous established characters, particularly the former main character of Mary Ann.
When Tales of the City first aired in 1993, a series like this probably needed a white, cis-gendered woman to lead the audience into queer life, but a 2019 series does not need to hold the audience’s hand this way.
As such, Mary Ann often feels like a vestigial tale of the old series, who has to be there because of her importance to the series but whose journey tends to detract from the more interesting elements around her.
This is not the fault of actress Laura Linney, who gives a strong performance, but more a comment on how much has changed since the first Tales of the City aired in a pre-gay marriage world.
That said, the series does find a place for another of its former leads, landlady and transwoman Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis).
Anna is the emotional heart of Tales of the City and Oscar-winning Dukakis gives one of the best performances she has given in a nearly six-decade career.
As if in apology for casting a cis-gendered actress in a trans role in the ‘90s, the show has one episode almost entirely set in the ’60s, telling the history of Anna, who in this episode is played by trans actress Jen Richards.
This episode is the highlight of the series, partly down to Richards but also thanks to Daniela Vega, who doubles down on the powerhouse performance she gave in her breakout film, A Fantastic Woman.
In fact, the episode is so good that Netflix should do some hard thinking about commissioning a full prequel to Tales of the City.
That said, the modern-day episodes also have plenty to recommend them, even if an overarching blackmail plot feels a little tacked on and some plot points work better than others.
However, any LGBTQ+-focused drama that can assemble such a talented queer cast, with out actors like Bob the Drag Queen, and Victor Garber joining Page, Barnett and Bartlett giving strong performances, should be celebrated, especially in Pride month.
Tales of the City is streaming on Netflix now.
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