“Don’t do the math.”
That’s the advice of producer/director Alan Poul (Six Feet Under, The Newsroom), who acknowledges that calculations might be a bit fuzzy for Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a 10-episode update that premieres June 7 on Netflix and that places some of the storied residents of 28 Barbary Lane, and their younger successors, in the real estate nightmare that is present-day San Francisco.
The Wynnewood native, who last year was named one of Lower Merion High School’s distinguished alumni, has been helping to bring Armistead Maupin’s stories of an LGBT-friendly enclave to television since the first six-episode mini-series. Produced by Britain’s Channel 4, the show’s 1994 run on American Playhouse drew record ratings for PBS, a Peabody Award, and enough of a conservative backlash to scare public television away from a planned sequel.
Based on novels that began as a San Francisco Chronicle serial, it was set in the 1970s, with the second of two Showtime sequels bringing characters up to 1981. The new Tales opens with Laura Linney’s middle-aged Mary Ann Singleton returning to Barbary Lane after a 20-year absence to help celebrate the 90th birthday of her pot-smoking former landlady, Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis). It’s a complicated homecoming, bringing her face to face with her former husband, Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross), and their adult daughter, Shawna (Ellen Page), while reuniting her with her dear friend Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Murray Bartlett, Looking).
“There’s some fudging involved, but if people are getting out their calculators, then they’re probably not that into the show in the first place. And Barbary Lane was always a place that carried a little magic with it,” Poul said in a recent phone interview from Paris, where he’s at work on another project for Netflix, The Eddy, a musical drama from Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash).
It’s more than just math he doesn’t want you doing. Poul, who’s an executive producer of the series and who directed three of its episodes, is against Tales viewers having to do homework of any kind.
He and showrunner Lauren Morelli "were aware that this show had to work equally well for people who were coming back with cherished images of the original series and those characters who are returning, and for people who might turn on Netflix and have that suggested for them, click it on, and say, ‘I’ll check this out,’ and might have had no idea that there was ever a previous book or mini-series,” he said.
“I say it all the time: No homework required," he said. "We don’t want a single person to be daunted by the prospect that they should really look at the old series or read the books before they tune in. That means they’ll never tune in. Because who wants to do homework?”
Certainly no fan of Tales, which has never been a stranger to soap opera even as its evolution mirrored changes in television. Not only has the show gone from a broadcast network to premium cable and now to a subscription streaming service, but its characters continue to reflect shifts in the way LGBT people are portrayed as well as in how they might identify themselves.
“There is an entire world that has come up that … thinks about queer issues, about gender, about sexuality, in an entirely different way.”
As groundbreaking a character as Dukakis’ Anna, a trans woman, once was, her portrayal as a young woman by trans actress Jen Richards feels necessary in a way it might not have even a few years ago. And among the younger tenants of her boardinghouse, labeling someone merely gay or straight seems downright 1994.
“On the one hand, we have this group of characters that we love, and have loved, for a long time, and now we’re going to bring them into middle age and old age,” Poul said.
“But on the other hand, there is an entire world that has come up that … thinks about queer issues, about gender, about sexuality, in an entirely different way. And we felt that just to make the show nostalgic wouldn’t help anybody. We really wanted to be able to dive into the middle of the conversation about sex and gender, and about queerness, and about what it means to be in the LGBTQ world today.”
Representative of that generation gap is a dinner party scene in which Mouse’s younger boyfriend, Ben (Charlie Barnett), takes exception to an older man’s use of an anti-transgender slur, triggering an angry reaction.
“I’m Mouse’s generation, and … I know among my friends who just describe themselves as gay men and don’t want to get into any other terminology — my peers — that the younger generation is a mystery to them, and, I think, vice versa,” Poul said.
"That dialog between people who want to be nonbinary and queer and reject just ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ as labels, and my generation, [who] want to say, ‘Oh, come on, honey, get off your high horse,’ isn’t happening, much as I would like to see it. And so we created that scene for Michael and Ben.”
As for Bartlett, who’s the third actor to portray Michael, “I find his performance to be incredibly moving as the representative of the older gay male generation,” Poul said.
When he was first approached about the project more than 25 years ago, Poul said he was asked whether he knew anything about Maupin’s books. "And I was like, ‘Hell, yeah.’ Because … in that time, if you were a literate young gay man, you had read the books. It was just kind of a rite of passage.”
For that first series, “I was not the first to the party. It was already set up, and I came in and served as the producer for the U.S. side. But out of that came my deep and lasting friendship with Armistead,” Poul said. And in the years between PBS passing on the sequel and Showtime taking it up, "I became the de facto keeper of the flame, and so I went on to produce the second and third installments that were done for Showtime and shot primarily in Montreal.”
“I don’t want to ruin anybody’s suspension of disbelief, but … San Francisco is a very difficult city to shoot in. There’s not a lot of sound stages, and it’s expensive and it’s not very film-friendly. So, when you’re shooting a story that takes place in San Francisco, you shoot everything in San Francisco that you have to, but your interiors, and your sets, you build elsewhere.”
The latest series was largely filmed in New York. “A lot of people believe that Barbary Lane is really a place that exists … but that 28 Barbary Lane Victorian boardinghouse is something of our invention — Armistead’s invention — and then we designed it for the first series," and built it in Los Angeles.
“New York is not the cheapest place to shoot in," but it was chosen to accommodate the 87-year-old Dukakis, Poul said, describing the Oscar-winning actress as “an incredible life force.”
The location decision, he said, was a no-brainer for Netflix.
"They said, ‘We have to have her. She won’t get on a plane. We’ll go to her.’”
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Friday, June 7, Netflix.