Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City has been an important part of queer culture and media for decades. But with all this talk of the new Netflix revival, which hits the streaming service this week, some of the children out there might be asking what Tales is even about. Where does someone even begin?
Maupin’s novels are like soap operas with many crazy happenings and characters. In advance of the premiere, NewNowNext has compiled a beginner’s guide to the world of Mary Ann Singleton and Barbary Lane so you aren’t completely scratching your head this weekend when you dive into the first episode.
The Genesis of Tales
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I only first discovered the #talesofthecity series last year (Thanks @violetvalleybooks !) and immediately devoured the first book. When I heard a couple of months ago that #netflix was reviving the story line, I decided to see how many books I could get through before June 7th. (New show featuring #ellenpage #lauralinney #olympiadukakis – swooon!!) Well, I just finished book 8 of 9 last night! ❤️🧡💛💚💙💜(And yes, it bugs me that the artwork doesn’t match the set for #michaeltolliverlives) #designnerd #armisteadmaupin #queerauthors #queerbooks #lgbt #lgbtq #bookstagram #igreads #bookfairyreads #readmore #sanfrancisco #logicalfamily #annamadrigal #28barbarylane #barbarylane
Tales of the City is made up of nine novels: Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City, Babycakes, Significant Others, Sure of You, Michael Tolliver Lives, Mary Ann in Autumn, and The Days of Anna Madrigal. But Tales didn’t start out as books. Maupin originally wrote it as a weekly column, which was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976. The columns were eventually collected and released as the first five books, with later titles being released solely as novels. The final book in the series, The Days of Anna Madrigal, was released in 2014.
The Residents of Barbary Lane
28 Barbary Lane is a magical apartment complex in San Francisco run by Anna Madrigal. Over the course of nine books, many characters are introduced, but here is a rundown of the main players who you should know for the Netflix revival.
Mary Ann Singleton
Played by Laura Linney in all three of the original miniseries and now in the Netflix revival, Mary Ann is a young 20-something from Cleveland who visits San Francisco and ends up crashing with high school friend Connie Bradshaw (Parker Posey). She falls in love with the city and decides to stay, eventually moving off of Connie’s couch and into 28 Barbary Lane. She becomes fast friends with Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, her neighbor at Barbary Lane. She falls in love and marries another neighbor, Brian. The two adopt Shawna (Ellen Page), Connie’s daughter, after Connie dies. Mary Ann becomes a popular talk show host in San Francisco, with her career eventually taking her to New York. After she and Brian divorce, she moves to the East Coast, leaving him to raise Shawna solo.
Michael “Mouse” Tolliver
Michael is a resident of 28 Barbary Lane and quickly takes Mary Ann under his wing when she moves to the city. His nickname is “Mouse” for his small stature, but he has been hitting the gym since viewers last saw him, with Murray Bartlett playing him as more of a daddy in the Netflix series. Michael, who has been living with HIV for more than 20 years, is the central character in the seventh book in the series, Michael Tolliver Lives.
Brian is a known womanizer who also occupies an apartment at Barbary Lane. He begins as Mary Ann’s neighbor, but the two start dating and eventually get married. Michael and Brian open a nursery, Plant Parenthood, together. When Mary Ann moves to New York for work, she and Brian divorce, and she leaves him and Shawna in San Francisco.
Mary Ann’s high school friend Connie Bradshaw gave birth to her daughter, Shawna, and on her deathbed left Shawna in care of Mary Ann and Brian. When Mary Ann left San Francisco, Brian never told Shawna who her real mother is—leading to big reveals when Mary Ann returns to San Francisco for Anna Madrigal’s 90th birthday celebration.
One of the most iconic trans characters in pop culture, Anna was brought to life on screen by Olympia Dukakis, who reprises her role in the new Netflix series. Anna is the landlady of 28 Barbary Lane and acts as a maternal figure to everyone who lives there. She grew up as the child of a brothel owner in Winnemucca, Nevada, eventually making her way to San Francisco in the 1960s, a journey explored in the revival.
DeDe Halycon Day
DeDe is Mary Ann’s longtime friend who worked for DeDe’s father, Edgar Halcyon, the wealthy owner of an advertising agency (and whom Anna Madrigal dated in the first Tales book). DeDe has one of the most dramatic storylines of any Tales character. She starts off married to Beauchamp Day (played by Thomas Gibson in the original series), who cheats on her. DeDe goes on a journey of sexual discovery and ends up marrying a woman and surviving the Jonestown massacre. Like we said, crazy. When we meet her again in the new Tales, DeDe is back in San Francisco living it up as a wealthy socialite.
Note: There are many more characters who play a significant role in the book series, such as Mona Ramsey, who you don’t necessarily have to know to understand the new show.
The first novel was originally made into a miniseries that aired on PBS in 1993 and has been hailed as one of the greatest TV miniseries of all time. Two sequel series, More Tales of the City and Further Tales of the City, aired on Showtime in 1998 and 2001, respectively. Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, and Barbara Garrick, are the only cast members who appeared in all three of the original series and are returning for the 2019 revival.
In 2011 Tales was also turned into a musical, which ran for two months at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. The show had a book by Jeff Whitty and a score by Jake Shears and John “JJ” Garden. There was also a one-night concert performance of the musical on Broadway in 2017 with Justin Vivian Bond as Anna Madrigal.
If you want to know more about the man behind Tales, check out the documentary about the writer, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, and his 2017 memoir, Logical Family.
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City begins streaming June 7 on Netflix.