My love affair with California started in 1994 when I discovered Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. The story about a group of friends who live at the top of some wooden steps at 28 Barbary Lane in 70’s San Francisco opened up a portal to a magical land of possibilities, a gay utopia. Aged 18, I had never seen a depiction of a happy gay life. It touched my soul and gave me hope when I first watched (and then read) it.
A self-confessed nostalgia nut, I was nervous about the next chapter of TOTC which picks up 20 years after its last installment. Instagram references and knowing jokes aside, how could the magic of the original, itself a joyride through pre-AIDS halcyon days, created in the Golden Age of gay tv, ever be recaptured? Back in the 90s there was a real need for queer programming (thank you PBS and Channel 4). Shows like Special demonstrate there is still a need to tell nuanced gay stories, but my hypersensitive hackles were up for Tales.
I had a bit of a meta moment when I realized I now live in the place where Mary Ann first escaped from in 1976 - the year I was born. Much as she once left her ho hum life in Ohio for greener pastures in San Francisco in the original, we learn that Mary Ann now lives in Connecticut. Her journalism ambitions have stalled giving way to hosting informercials. Finding a new way to earn a living is a professional reality for many recovering journalists these days, myself included.
The focus on family, both biological and logical, is a recurring theme in Maupin’s work. I guess I never really found the kind of family depicted in the Tales universe, and part of me feels shortchanged. Mouse was always a bit annoying but especially so as a dizzy 54-year old. Watching the episodes with him and his younger boyfriend Ben was uncomfortable and boring. Intergenerational dating is as tedious in real life as it is on screen apparently. What saved it for me was the stunning flashback episode (Days of Small Surrenders), which introduces trans actor Jen Richards as a young Anna in the 1960s. It is so good it could almost be a stand-alone movie. It highlighted how shallow the new characters are.
Another recurring theme for Maupin is the lineage he invents between San Francisco and the magical civilization of Atlantis. Myth-making is baked into the Tales dna. If Maupin is our chief dream dispenser, the kooky commune of Barbary Lane represents the ultimate LGBT fantasy. A fictional realm purpose-built for those with an overdeveloped appetite for immersive make-believe. It was the first fairytale designed for our people in which we weren’t the tragic friend or sad uncle. It was also one of the first literary writings to deal with the AIDS epidemic.
On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall, will this reboot feel like a romance gone awry for OG loyalists? Will a romantic portrait of togetherness resonate with a new generation of app-addicted woke gays/queers/whatevs? Maybe then as now, Tales serves a greater community purpose to soothe a group of individuals who never felt celebrated in their family/hometown/body of origin. Fantasy and entertainment certainly helped this perpetually questing kid who still longs to belong.