Netflix’s ‘Tales of the City’ Review: A Walk Down Barbary Lane

Netflix’s Tales of the City is a nostalgia ride for those familiar, and unfamiliar, with the original. When you ascend Anna Madrigal’s cobblestoned steps, entering a home along Barbary Lane, you do not become a voyeur looking in; rather, the tales are weaved in such a way that you mesh into the existing fabric.

Tales of the City
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JUNE 03: (L-R) Laura Linney, Luke Kirby, Ellen Page, Jen Richards, Ashley Park, Lauren Morelli, Charlie Barnett, Murray Bartlett, Garcia, Alan Poul, Michael Park, Olympia Dukakis, May Hong, Dickie Hearts, Barbara Garrick, and Samantha Soule attend the “Tales of the City” New York premiere at The Metrograph on June 03, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/WireImage)

Whether you remember Laura Linney’s first turn as Mary Ann is inconsequential, for you will return alongside her. You will return to San Francisco years late to discover that, though your home may have changed, the magic it retains remains the same. And, that magic is forged and reinforced via the soft-spoken and mysterious Anna Madrigal.

This limited series bleeds San Francisco – its history, its iconicity, and its revolutionary impact on LGBTQ+ acceptance and representation. However, though existing as an ever-relevant window into an under-represented population, the show is not merely a political stance. Tales of the City is first and foremost – about family. It’s about love. It’s about fear. It’s about commitment. It’s about matters of the heart. And that, in and of itself, is the political stance.

Tales of the City succeeds on two fronts: it celebrates San Francisco’s diversity (with the perfect balance of sentiment and humor) while constructing a “family within a family.” The latter drives the show’s plot and dramatic undercurrents; the former serves as an overlay, drawing viewers into San Francisco’s contemporary culture. The show reminds viewers that it gets better, without downplaying the severity of current LGBTQ+ hurdles. And if that’ not enough, the cast speaks for itself.

Let’s talk Laura Linney and Ellen Page in ‘Tales of the City’

Laura Linney captures the “square” Mary Ann without reconstructing the naivete akin to her earlier performance. You can tell she’s been here before, for she is not surprised; she is reminiscent.

A smile, indicative of past joys, crosses her face as she traverses her hometown. Wheels fall from her suitcase, and she laughs. She laughs at the broken wheel, rolling down the hill behind her, and taking her former Connecticut life with it.  

You root for Mary Ann. You root for her to find a way back in, to find a way into Shawna’s heart – a young girl more like her mother than she initially realized.

Ellen Page portrays Shawna. She’s the girl verbally closing people out, as every silent action hints at the vulnerability within. When Ellen Page cries, you cry. When she acts tough, you know why.

Page’s character, though quickly shifting between multiple emotional states, never feels tonally incongruous; rather, she feels the most “real” of the entire cast. She feels broken, yet determined. She feels understanding yet angry. She feels stuck but, somehow, simultaneously liberated.

Ellen Page, as one of Anna Madrigal’s younger caretakers, is the character you align most with. She gives a performance worthy of award recognition. Yet, not for what she does; for what she doesn’t do. Every gesture, every quirk, every smirk, every sny remark, falls perfectly, and with a subtlety that only further cements her intricately defined characterization.

Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal: a scratched diamond

Olympia Dukakis plays the rock. She is the matriarch holding the Barbary Lane family together; yet, harboring a dark secret, she struggles to remain the wise advisor, while coping with feelings of hypocrisy and fear.

Olympia Dukakis takes on an older Anna with an inspiring sense of grace: each letter she enunciates carries decades of knowledge. The pause between each word only further transforms her into a sage, drawing you into her world, into her outlook. Olympia Dukasis reprises her role, yet brings something new to this iteration.

Like a scratched diamond: she is an unfathomable concept. A woman so strong and so wise; so supported, yet so afraid. Olympia Dukakis, at 87 years old, says, “watch me steal this show!”