San Francisco in the 1990s was a defining time for Australian-born actor Murray Bartlett. He was visiting the Bay Area at the time and came across VHS tapes of Tales of the City, the PBS miniseries that first aired in 1994. Bartlett “completely fell in love” with the characters, and quickly devoured the nine Armistead Maupin books the series is based on. Bartlett’s impressions of the city were forever “mingled” with the imagery of the novels and adaptions. And he isn’t alone.
Maupin’s enduringly classic series is a benchmark for San Francisco’s LGBTQ community. Beginning as regular installments in the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, the gay author’s stories ultimately evolved into nine novels and three TV miniseries. Now, nearly 41 years since the first tale was published, the residents of 28 Barbary Lane are speaking to the next generation in a new adaption streaming on Netflix, executive produced by Maupin and Orange Is the New Black alum Lauren Morelli, who is also the showrunner.
Revolving around a group of San Francisco residents and their tangled lives, the show centers on Mary Ann Singleton (played by Laura Linney in all installments), who visits the city from Cleveland and impulsively decides to stay. She finds an apartment managed by marijuana-growing landlady Anna Madrigal (played by Olympia Dukakis throughout the series), where she befriends a string of other zany tenants like the bisexual hippie Mona Ramsey, womanizer Brian Hawkins (who eventually becomes her lover), and perhaps one of the most memorable of all, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, a gay man who is diagnosed with HIV early in the series.
Michael holds a special place in the hearts of die-hard Tales of the City fans. Played in the past by Marcus D’Amico and Paul Hopkins, the role is now Bartlett’s to tackle in the new interpretation, and he does so with such conviction and honesty that he reminds us of all the reasons why we fell in love with Michael in the first place.
Bartlett, who grew up in Perth, Australia, and moved to the U.S. in 2000, got his big break playing Oliver Spencer, the sexy gay Aussie shoe distributor who becomes Carrie Bradshaw’s fast friend on Sex and the City. A year of theater touring with Hugh Jackman (in The Boy From Oz) and several guest and recurrent TV roles followed, including Farscape and Guiding Light, where he spent two years playing Cyrus Foley. Then came HBO’s groundbreaking gay series, Looking (and later, Looking: The Movie) where his character, Dom Basaluzzo, showed us what it’s like to be a gay middle-aged, career waiter. It’s safe to say he’s right at home on the modern Tales set.
Pictured above and below: It’s been nearly 20 years since we saw Armistead Maupin’s iconic characters from Tales of the City brought to life. In the latest Netflix installment, Laura Linney (pictured above and below) revives her role of Mary Ann Singleton alongside Murray Bartlett’s Michael “Mouse” Tolliver. Viewers watch as Michael, who is HIV-positive, navigates the nuances of being in a serodiscordent relationship — a rarity for TV audiences who haven’t been exposed to positive HIV stories.
It’s been 20 years since we last saw Michael. Now he’s a long-term survivor. His much younger boyfriend Ben is HIV-negative, offering one of less than a handful of serodiscordant relationships ever shown on TV. And unlike in the books (where the character of Ben is white), the role in the Netflix version is played wonderfully by Charlie Barnett (a gay Black actor who also stars in Netflix’s Russian Doll and was previously in Chicago Fire).
Viewers can see Michael in a new light as he navigates the nuances of a serodiscordent relationship — including the fear and anxiety he harbors, which many real-life long-term survivors say never goes away.
“Michael became HIV-positive at a time when it felt like a death sentence, in the height of the AIDS epidemic, and lost a lot of his friends,” Bartlett explains. “He went through that incredible period of loss and fear, and really facing your own mortality. He was able to move through that and see a future for himself again, which he hadn’t thought was a possibility. Then, coming into this new era of PrEP, LGBTQ people who have a completely sort of different perspective on sex and safe sex, and how to approach that.”
Still, Bartlett says, while it’s wonderful exploring the new age of HIV prevention, for folks of his generation it’s still complicated to embrace. Michael and Ben represent the intersection of these two perspectives. Ben is a lot less apprehensive than Michael is when it comes to sex, which ultimately helps navigate for viewers the consensus that, with treatment, HIV is a chronic manageable condition.
The books were themselves revolutionary for showing Michael living a prosperous life with HIV, rather than succumbing to a tragic death as was a common storyline throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Now that the character is living in the age of PrEP and U=U (undetectable equals untransmittable), Bartlett continues that tradition of never letting Michael’s status define him. But this time around, the scale is even larger.
Pictured above: Charlie Barnett (above and below with Murray Bartlett) plays Michael’s boyfriend Ben, who is HIV-negative. Their serodiscordent relationship offers an avenue for discussing PrEP and U=U, neither of which were around during the original series.
“One of the amazing things about a platform like Netflix is that it’s global,” says Bartlett. “I think we’re in sort of a golden age of television in that there are more risks being taken, and the platforms that we have are so far-reaching, and it’s so exciting. Particularly, telling stories like these can really change people’s lives in terms of people who are living in a place where there aren’t the freedoms that we have. Just seeing the possibility of something else, and not feeling alone, the power of that is kind of overwhelming for all of us.”
While the nostalgia of revisiting familiar characters is a predominant draw for some viewers, the new Tales offer a cast of entirely new residents to engage fresh audiences and reiterate the times we’re currently living in.
Social media-obsessed twins, played by Christopher Larkin and Ashley Park, occupy the top floor of 28 Barbary Lane. Jake Rodriguez, a trans man, and his girlfriend Margot Park are the newest residents (played by nonbinary newcomer Josiah Victoria Garcia and High Maintenance star May Hong). Ellen Page plays Shawna, Mary Ann and Brian’s daughter, who, in the books, was eventually left behind with Brian as Mary Ann went to New York to pursue a career in broadcasting. When Mary Ann returns in the new installment to celebrate Anna’s 90th birthday, she is forced to face her now-adult daughter who resents her for leaving. Trans actress Daniela Vega (AFantastic Woman), Looking star Matthew Risch (as Mouse’s ex-boyfriend), and Caldwell Tidicue, a.k.a. Bob the Drag Queen (as the manager of the burlesque house where Shawna and Margot both work) round out the cast.
Since Maupin began writing the series in the late 1970s, the once-queer eden of San Francisco has morphed into a tech-gentrified city that was recently crowned the most expensive place to live in the United States. All that change has pushed many queers, trans people, artists, and those living with HIV out of the city — and you’ll see some of that on Tales. But in many ways, San Francisco and the LGBTQ love affair with it (especially on screen) have simply matured with time.
“You have the nostalgia of the old characters in Tales of the City and the same with [San Francisco],” says Bartlett. “You have the nostalgia of the mystery of it, the fog, the beautiful sense of community, the incredible echoes of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, the Castro and all of that wonderful stuff. And then you have this new generation of characters that are not all disconnected from the sort of old, more romantic San Francisco… There’s a wonderful sort of vitality in the new generations.”
The demand for accurate representation of LGBTQ folks in TV and film has never been louder, which encouraged producers to enlist trans writer Thomas McBee and trans directors Silas Howard and Sydney Freeland to be part of the creative team for the Netflix version — another milestone for TV.
One earlier revolutionary moment for Tales of the City was the character of Anna Madrigal, who, readers discovered only after several novels, is transgender. Dukakis’s portrayals in the 1993, 1998, and 2001 miniseries were welcomed then, but might not have been if produced today, given that the actress is cisgender. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Morelli said if she were casting the role today, Anna “would have to be played by, rightfully so, a trans woman.”
Still, it’s hard to find anyone who would argue that Dukakis’s iconic role ought to be played by anyone else after she has embodied it for over a quarter of a century. It should be noted, however, that trans actress Jen Richards now plays a young Anna during flashback scenes.
Bartlett applauds activists for demanding Hollywood to be more inclusive and authentic. In fact, he encourages them to go even further in terms of beauty standards.
“I think that there’s still in the U.S. a tendency to kind of stay within some sort of safe confines of what we’re familiar with in terms of the kind of characters we see, what they look like, what we should look like. Everyone has to have a great body, look a certain way, or whatever. A great body, whatever that means. Hollywood has sort of very fixed ideas about that.”
Though Bartlett explains these types of beauty standards aren’t as prevalent in places like Australia and the United Kingdom, he is definitely noticing a healthier shift in America as he sees a larger demand for authenticity. In many ways, he credits streaming services like Netflix for that evolution.
“In terms of what’s happening in the world of television at the moment, there are people taking more risks, taking really great creative risks,” he says. “Casting in a different way, and telling different stories, more diverse stories, and stories that are actually more reflective of life. They haven’t got [that] sort of Hollywood kind of fairytale fog over them.”
It’s clear that Bartlett is well aware of the history he is making in Tales of the City. “It’s surreal how much I love this job,” the actor confesses. He understands this can be the beginning of a new way to tell queer stories — and he’s not taking that responsibility lightly.
“It’s really important to make sure that we’re employing more women, employing more trans people, more people from the LGBTQ community — or at least giving them a shot at those roles playing trans and LGBTQ characters, and for trans actors to play cis roles,” he says. “We need to branch out and bring up this new wave of a real reflection of the world that we live in so that we can tell more stories and give [queer] people opportunities to become masters in what they do.”