The Netflix “Tales of the City” brings Maupin’s characters together to celebrate the 90th birthday of Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), landlady and chosen mother to them all. Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) returns from Connecticut, eager to honor Anna but anxious about seeing her ex-husband, Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross), and her daughter, Shawna (Ellen Page), whom Mary Ann left behind when she moved to New York to take a shot at a TV career. Michael Tolliver (Murray Bartlett) is living with well-managed HIV and newly in love with his younger boyfriend, Ben (Charlie Barnett). Jake Rodriguez (newcomer Garcia) and his girlfriend, Margot Park (May Hong), are trying to navigate the aftermath of Jake’s gender transition, which has upended Margot’s sense of her lesbian identity. And, in keeping with the pulpy, dramatic adventures that have long defined “Tales of the City” stories, tucked into Anna’s stack of birthday cards is a threat to expose Anna as a fraud.
Under different circumstances, these conflicts could easily collapse into acrimony. Mary Ann’s second-wave feminism (not to mention her absence from her daughter’s life) could lead to ugly recriminations between her and Shawna, who works in a burlesque co-op bar. The other characters could judge Margot as insufficiently enlightened for feeling unable to be true to herself while also staying with Jake. Jake and the other characters in the series could side with the blackmailer and deem Anna a traitor once they learn her secret. Ben and Michael could prove unable to reach each other across the generation gap that divides gay men who lived through the worst years of the AIDS crisis from those who came after.
The miracle of “Tales of the City” is that none of these grim scenarios comes to pass.
There are painful scenes in the series, to be sure. At a dinner party with Michael’s friends, Ben suggests that they use more respectful language, only to be met with a ferocious rebuke from an older gay man who suggests that Ben is ungrateful for the work another generation did on his behalf. Anna’s transgression, once it is revealed, is no mere naughtiness: She has done real harm. And beyond these conflicts that play out on a personal level, “Tales of the City” is realistic about the impossible costs of housing in San Francisco, the city’s homelessness problem and the darker aspects of its history.
But the miniseries is genuinely, modestly utopian in its optimism that people of goodwill can navigate these ideological conflicts and changing social currents with kindness and an aim toward making recompense for past wrongs. In fact, “Tales of the City” suggests that these qualities are the only things that can be effective at all.
It’s a measure less of “Tales of the City” itself and more of the current political moment that these ideas feel so unusual and so important. Though it’s common (and easy) to blame President Trump for the bitter fragmentation of American politics, the knives were out in the very sorts of communities that "Tales of the City” portrays before he descended his escalator and tossed his gilded hat in the ring. Michelle Goldberg chronicled a series of agonizing intra-feminist Twitter debacles for the Nation in 2014. The surprisingly competitive 2016 Democratic primary race between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton endowed the left with a new set of enmities and stereotypes. And a rising purity politics, coupled with a profound sense of powerlessness, made so-called cancel culture, which is aimed at marginalizing and diminishing people who do offensive things, ubiquitous.
By these standards, the kindness that defines “Tales of the City” might be dismissed as squishy and inadequate to the task at hand, a relic of a long-since-ruthlessly-gentrified San Francisco.
“Tales of the City" anticipates that argument, though, suggesting at every turn that it takes incredible courage and fortitude to welcome a prodigal home; to confront profound generational divides; and to not merely seek absolution but also to do the work and make the sacrifices to prove you’ve earned it. There is no aging country-club member who can’t be taught to communicate better with his daughter as long as he’s willing to listen; no strain of stereotypical thinking so prevalent that someone, somewhere, won’t buck it; no moment at which it’s too late to try to do something to make up for a past wrong. “Tales of the City” has more faith in people to be good and in the possibility of transforming the world than the practitioners of a more rigid politics of critique do. The villain turns out not to be one of the many characters who has transgressed progressive values in ways big and small. Rather, it is revealed to be someone who has made a fetish of righteousness.
“You can still be good,” Anna tells her blackmailer when they finally meet. In a political environment that sometimes feels more oriented toward identifying who is bad than in imagining what a better world for everyone would look like, that’s a genuinely audacious idea. We ought to take it seriously.