The Last ‘Tales,’ Closing the Doors on 28 Barbary Lane

That address, 28 Barbary Lane, is, I would argue, the most recognized address in gay literature. It is, of course, the sprawling apartment building overseen by transgender landlady Anna Madrigal. It is a place where, if you were a new arrival from Cleveland in the 1970s your welcome might be a joint taped to the door. Or where your new GBF would introduce you to a world that you didn’t even know existed back in the Midwest. Or where, for awhile, a lunatic lived on the roof before he fell off a cliff and was gone for good. Or was he?

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The last one. Armistead Maupin caps nearly 40 years of stories about the denizens of 1970s San Francisco and their offspring in the ninth and final installment in the Tales of the City series.

The godfather of gay serial fiction, Armistead Maupin, has said that with the release of The Days of Anna Madrigal this month, the nearly 40-year-long run of Tales of the City will come to an end. Maupin said, in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Louis Peitzman, “I’ve taken a great deal of care with all nine of these novels, and I want to leave on a high point. I’m also going to be 70 in May, so I’d like to leave a little space for myself to explore some new ideas.”

Like so many gay men of a certain vintage, Tales had a tremendous effect on me. I have no recollection about how I heard about the books, but I did, and with great trepidation, lest some bookstore clerk think I was gay —gasp— I purchased Tales of the City and subsequently devoured it, then More Tales, Further Tales and then 1984’s Babycakes, which dates my discovery to around 1985 or so. I was 21 years old.

I bought Significant Others as soon as it came out in 1987 and 1989’s Sure of You when it hit the bookstore shelves and I read and re-read them all multiple times.

To me, these books allowed me access to a world that I had not even known to dream about, my worldview so stifled at the time by my conservative upbringing in North Carolina; but I was far from the only gay man in the 1980s who ever-so-tentatively stuck a toe out of the closet because of Armistead Maupin and Tales of the City.

By 1993, when the first mini-series aired on PBS, I was living in Washington, D.C., nearly 30 and mostly out and my friends and I would gather each week to watch Tales unfold on the screen while I taped the episodes on my VHS recorder to watch over and over again.

I have such a distinctive recollection of Mouse (Marcus D’Amico) and Dr. Jon  (Billy Campbell, who I had such a crush on!) waking up in bed together and Michael sneaking off to brush his teeth. When he returns to the bed, they carried  on their conversation like it was the most normal thing in the world. Because it was, right? Except that we had never seen anything like that on television before. Men. In bed. Together. The morning after.

And instead of the expected follow-up of, “You will now be damned to hell,” Mona brings them breakfast and Jon sticks his finger in the marmalade pot and licks it off in perhaps the sexiest post-breakfast average morning scene ever put on film. We were mesmerized.

This is really on PBS? It was, and it was so amazingly controversial that it took five more years to get the funding to shoot More Tales and until 2001 to do Further Tales.

Today, I can’t think of the radiant Laura Linney — gifted actress though she is — without first thinking about Mary Ann Singleton. Nor can I imagine anyone else ever in the history of the world playing Mrs. Madrigal other than Olympia Dukakis.

Today, we have HBO’s much-hyped series about gay men in San Francisco, Looking, we have multiple gay-themed series on the web and on cable, we have a cable channel devoted to gay and lesbian programming, and we even have a front burner positive gay storyline on mainstream Days of our Lives. How far we’ve come since it was a scandal to see Billy Campbell’s ass.

We’ve got a long way to go, but through the first quarter century and first half-dozen books of Tales, and after all three TV mini-series, no same-sex couple could get married in the United States. Now you can, in 16 states (depending on what’s being litigated today). That’s an impressive leap forward.

I can’t imagine being that scared, closeted, young gay man that I was when I first found Tales of the City. It’s not often that we can point to a particular piece of literature and say, “This changed the world.” The nine books of the Tales series have done just that. And they’ve probably saved lives, too.

Thank you, Armistead Maupin. Your work has made an indelible impact.

Looking: Pay TV Goes Where The Web’s Been Before

HBO’s much ballyhooed Looking premiered last night and a lot of gay folks were hanging an awful lot of expectation on this half-hour. Trying to be everything to everybody would be a surefire way to set yourself up for disaster, so I wasn’t looking — as it were — for that. I didn’t have any expectations; I just wanted it to be good.

And it was, but I can’t help but feel a bit like Brad Bell, the co-creator/writer/star of Husbands, the hilarious marriage equality sitcom, who tweeted this:

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I’m going to come back to that in a second, but I also noticed that Rob Owen’s review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called Looking the “latest descendant of Queer as Folk.” Well, I don’t buy that at all. It’s closer to a modern day Tales of the City.

Of course, the San Francisco parallels are obvious and Armistead Maupin’s classic stories are classic for a reason and they are more layered because there are simply more layers on the canvas, but Looking’s Dom (Murray Bartlett), the mustachioed waiter nearing 40 who is always on the pull, is a gay clone of Tales‘ Brian Hawkins, not QAF’s Stuart Allen Jones (or Brian Kinney, in the American version). And that’s not taking anything away from Bartlett — he’s lovely — but it bothered me throughout the episode.

I also have to admit being bothered by the opening scenes featuring Jonathan Groff’s Patrick going for a quick handjob in the park because that is exactly what would have happened in Tales of the City in the 70s and 80s; except that it wouldn’t have been interrupted by a cellphone call. If director Andrew Haigh (I am such an enormous fan of his work) and writer Michael Lannan were trying to be ironic, it didn’t read. It came off as another depiction of gay men being completely and utterly driven by sex alone. And, quite frankly, in 2014, we desperately need to get beyond that because, well, straight people.

Then again, see above re: being all things to all people. (And for the record, back in the day when I could have possibly pulled a trick I was too bloody terrified to contemplate it and now that I’m too old and married, I’m awfully too old and married!)

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Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett and Jonathan Groff in HBO’s Looking, which follows the lives of three gay men in San Francisco. |Image: HBO

Look, Jonathan Groff is a wonderful, subtle, earnest performer and he’s so enjoyable to watch. Bartlett and Frankie J. Alvarez are equally competent hands on the tiller and you are interested in what will happen to them all enough to tune back in for the next episode. Also, it was nice to see people like Ann Magnuson,  Matt Wilkas (from the delicious indie comedy Gayby) and Tanner Cohen (Were the World Mine, the Shakespeare-inspired gay fantasy) who sports one of the most hilarious tattoos I’ve ever seen on screen.

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But, like Bell intimates, haven’t we seen some of this before? Is Patrick going through the same “slutty phase” as Jack in The Outs? Or are his attempts to find someone who is “not boring” akin to Thom in EastSiders? I have sense that we’ve been down this road already.

What set EastSiders and The Outs apart were the disintegration of a relationship (EastSiders) and the rebuilding of a different kind of relationship after a breakup (The Outs) and while Looking is not the same, it struck me as being a network version of a mashup of these two independent series. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t feel that Looking lived up to its hype. Not that it’s not good — because it is — but that there was too much lead in.

Then again, we’re so damn starved for entertainment in the gay community; so desperate that someone will turn that mirror back on us, that when there is something out there in the mainstream that may validate us, we want it to be as good as it possibly can be. And we’re always disappointed when it doesn’t meet all of our expectations.

It is unfair for me to compare The Outs and EastSiders to Looking, because they are each different animals, but I would urge you to look at their world views, too, if you haven’t already. The Outs is available here and EastSiders is available as individual episodes and cut as a full-length feature at logotv.com.

As for Looking, I’ll be looking in on it again next week because, since I just told a bunch of folks to give a recast on Days of our Lives a chance to settle into the role, it would be disingenuous of me not to allow this show to do the same.

P.S. — Don’t take my word for it. HBO has just released the first episode on YouTube for non-subscribers to see.