On this chapter of The Queerest Things I Watched Last Week, I dedicate an entire post to all of my feelings about Netflix Tales Of The City because I have a lot of them.
- Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City – Season 1 [Streaming]
Early in my out life, I read the Tales of the City Omnibus which is a giant collection the first 6 Tales of the City books spanning 1978 -1989. The first 5 books were compiled from Armistead Maupin’s serialized column in the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. The last four were written as novels ending in 2014. I have read almost all nine books (I’m over halfway through the last one).
I loved these books. Although some of the language is dated and the characters are not racially diverse, Armistead included characters all along the sexual and gender orientation spectrum. This was pretty evolved for a cis gay dude from the 70s. The fun part was he always had secrets and mysteries interwoven into the stories in addition to day-to-day drama of queer life in San Francisco. I imagine people couldn’t wait to read the column every week to find out what happened next.
Since the books started in 1978 and ended in 2014, it’s one of the few real-time chronicles of the AIDS pandemic. This alone gives the books their place in the queer culture canon. I got a lot out of reading them, especially during a time when there was little all-genders-inclusive queer fiction.
In 1993, 1998 and 2001 there were TV mini-series made of the first 3 books. I watched them all when they came out and really enjoyed them. They were pretty scene-for-scene true to the books and did not stray from stories written by Armistead. A month ago, Netflix dropped their own 10-episode version of Tales of the City and I have many strong feelings about it.
As I mentioned, Tales of the City suffered from a lack of racial diversity and the first three TV adaptations had a cis actor playing a transgender woman. The Netflix Tales Of The City iteration worked to fix that. Jake and Ben were played by actors of color and new characters of color who did not exist in the books (like Jake’s ex-girlfriend Margot) were introduced in the series. This was a big overall improvement. Also, hello — San Francisco is a diverse city! It’s not realistic to have a racially homogeneous cast.
Main characters Jake and young Anna Madrigal were both played by out transgender actors, and I think they did a phenomenal job. I found their storylines to be the most interesting and well done of the series. I also loved that they used the Philly Pride Flag at the end of some of the episodes (go, Philly).
Episode 8, “Days of Small Surrenders”
I thought this was a beautiful and brilliant episode of television.
We flashback to the 1960s when young Anna Madrigal (played amazingly by Jen Richards) arrives in San Francisco to restart her life as her authentic self. This episode covers so much ground including her start in San Francisco, making transgender friends and having a relationship with a police officer named Tommy.
Anna is in constant conflict with her friends for her ability to pass while they suffer daily from anti-transgender harassment.
And even though Anna and Tommy have an adorable meet-cute…
…the fact that he is a cop is a huge issue for Anna and her friends. The cops, including Tommy, were profiting off the abuse of transgender women. Anna, in turn, benefited as well from the gifts Tommy would buy her with the money he stole.
And even though Tommy accepted Anna, he made her keeping her gender orientation a secret a requisite for them being together.
All of this conflict comes to a head during the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, which was a real historical event that happened in 1966 in San Francisco and was one of the first recorded Queer riots in US history. Even though Tommy tells her to stay away, Anna comes to Compton’s to look after her friends and winds up getting swept up in the arrests.
This breaks Anna and Tommy apart, but before she leaves he gives her all of the money he stole from the queer people he harassed. She uses it to buy Barbary Lane for $13,500 and pay for her gender confirmation surgery.
This episode was well-written, beautifully acted and brilliantly complicated. It covered so many issues and queer history without being a lecture or an After School Special.
My Verdict on Netflix Tales Of The City
To be honest, I did not like this iteration of Tales overall.Warning: The following contains spoilers about the books!
This series did not follow the books at all. It was like the show creators maybe read the first few books, were given a list of characters and their sexual and gender orientations and told, “go make a show!” I know when you read books first it’s difficult to be objective about the show version, but not only did it not stay true to the books in the least, besides the positive things I mentioned above, it did not improve them.
If you use Anna’s age and Maryanne returning to San Francisco as markers, the show would be placed at the second to last book, Mary Ann in Autumn which was published in 2010. But you can assess the show is supposed to take place in present times from the cringy mentions of social media. By this point in the books, everyone had long moved away from Barbary lane. Brian was off driving an RV around the country, and Maryanne had already left her husband in CT.
One thing I didn’t like was how they turned Michael/Mouse from a bear to a muscle daddy. That gave me lookist vibes. Also, Jake and Mouse were business partners and owned the landscaping company together. I don’t know why switched Jake from being a business owner to a nursing student.
The plots felt disjointed and just plain boring. The wonderful thing about the books was Armistead’s ability to keep you reading to discover the next reveal. His mysteries and inter-woven character arcs were creative, like well-written soap opera. Why on earth did they not use any of that? Instead, the show would have brief periods of intrigue that would then get dropped.
My biggest complaint was how they handled the two main queer couples, DeDe and D’orothea and Ben and Mouse. DeDe and D’orothea were the only couple in the series to last throughout all nine books. They were happy. Why did the show choose to off-screen break them up? Ben and Mouse were happily married for the last few books of the series, but the show broke them up, too! Meanwhile, Brian and Maryanne never came close to getting back together in the books, but the show had them reunite like a straight rom-com. I found all that to be very disappointing.
The new characters they introduced, like Raven and Ani (the “influencer” twins), were ridiculous and unnecessary. They felt dropped in to appeal to “kids these days” although I don’t know a single person who has set up an Instagram account on a laptop.
I tried to think of the series as a standalone thing, independent of the books, but it was hard for me to completely divorce the two. Tales has its place in queer history. I think it could have been enhanced but still stay true to the stories. In my opinion, Netflix Tales Of The City did not accomplish that.
Next week, I’ll be back to recapping my weekly shows and writing my love letter to Tanya. Stay cool, everyone!