This spoiler-free review is based on the opening three episodes of Tales of the City Season 1.
Netflix’s Tales of the City is a sequel to a series that first aired in the UK on Channel 4 in 1993, with two additional instalments in 1998 and 2001. But you don’t need to have watched any of the previous material to enjoy this new addition. Here, the showrunners have done an excellent job at making a show that’s accessible without prior knowledge, either of those initial episodes or of the books of the same name by Armistead Maupin that the show is based on. By the end of Episode 1, you know all you need to know what’s going on and to get on board with it.
The show has an ensemble cast, with each getting their own developed storyline and a relatively even amount of screen time. There’s Mary-Ann Singleton – the straight-laced quasi-protege/pseudo-daughter played by Laura Linney, returning to San Francisco after 23 years away. There’s the adopted daughter (Ellen Page) and ex-husband Brian (Paul Gross) that she left behind. Mary Ann’s best friend, Mouse (Murray Bartlett), who has found love with Ben (Charlie Barnett), a much younger man. There’s a previously lesbian, now queer, couple Margot (May Hong) and Jake (Garcia). There are twins Raven (Christopher Larkin) and Ani (Ashley Park), who’ve turned to Instagram infamy to make some desperately needed money. And overseeing everything and linking everybody is Anna Madgrial (Olympia Dukakis), who has problems of her own.
It’s Anna’s 90th birthday that kicks everything off, with Mary Ann being compelled to attend the party that leads to all sorts of shifts in dynamics and skeletons being forced out of the closet. Throughout the first few episodes, we bear witness to these dramas, some big, some small and all interlinked in some way.
The show is a real pleasure to watch. Much like Netflix’s other success, Gracie and Frankie, this is a show that depicts LGBTQ+ love and friendships with tenderness and warmth. We quickly grow to care for all the characters, even if we have a specific favourite that we may ship. They’re well sketched out characters, most of the time feeling very real and believable – although documentarian Claire (played by an otherwise brilliant Zosia Mamet) is written too much like a walking pastiche of millennials. Her character feels like an excessive commentary of the gentrification of San Francisco, an aspect of the show that is otherwise beautifully handled. We are shown not told how times have changed, an aspect that will be recognisable to anyone residing in a similarly large city.
It seems like a loaded statement to refer to a show as an ‘easy’ watch, but Tales of The City is. It’s an ensemble drama of people living out their lives – the good stuff and the bad – to the extent they quickly feel like family. There’s a very good chance that this show will mean very much indeed to some people, like a beacon of hope when things can seem very bleak right now.
Tales of the City is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.