I was a diehard fan of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the Citybook series from the outset. First published in 1978, its protagonist might as well have been me if I’d been living in San Francisco instead of Manhattan. Michael Tolliver, “Mouse,” was in his early 20’s, and I was five or six years younger, but I’d come out in 1975 at an absurdly young 16 and had been immersed in the gay life of New York City ever since. (I was attending NYU Film School and working in a gay bar, so in the thick of it.)
The first three volumes of Tales cover a sliver of American social history like no other. Gays had only recently broken out of the closet in substantial numbers, and we were the leading edge of the sexual revolution. Sex – casual, serious, playful, romantic, underground, leathery, drug-enhanced, you-name-it – didn’t just feel good, it felt like we had discovered something new and vital about how human beings could be with each other when they unshackled themselves from shame and social convention. And it wasn’t just the bars and the baths and the sex clubs that made that time so special, it was the idea that friendship had the status of a family, and laughter was even more important than sex. And as hard as it is to see now, this time has to be looked back on with the understanding that we weren’t living with a presentiment of what was to come. We worried about coming out to our parents, paying the rent, and whether we’d meet the love of our life. No one imagined the unimaginable that was about to descend.
But the unimaginable did descend, and within the space of a year, everything changed, irrevocably and forever. Finding the right apartment, career, or boyfriend seemed positively luxurious, belonging to a time that was only yesterday but felt a million miles away. The sudden knowledge that there was a noose around your neck and that of all of your friends was rendered skillfully in Babycakes and the next few Tales that came after it, as Maupin showed his characters feeling the ground beneath their feet turn to quicksand. (Those of us who went through that time are now experiencing déjà-vu, but it isn’t AIDS but the vicissitudes of old age that are making the ground soft again. At least this time around, every other sixty-something in America is going through the very same thing.)
In this latest Netflix series, Michael takes Ben to a dinner party that reveals the intensity of the gap between the generation whose lives will forever be divided into thirds – before, during and after AIDS – and a 28-year old who has only known “after.” Later that night, Michael explains to Ben that the psychic loss experienced by survivors of the plague ran deeper than the death of countless friends, even if he only understands this in retrospect. “The sense of fun, of freedom, that’s what got taken from us. I think that’s where the rage comes from because we were so young… and we felt invincible. But we weren’t.”
Michael cries as he tells this to Ben, and I cried as I heard him say it. It’s something I’ve often thought but was reluctant to share, as if it was disrespectful to the memory of all those felled by AIDS. How dare we grieve the loss of our hedonistic joie de vivre when we’d survived with our very lives? I felt like Maupin, through Michael, was telling us we daren’t not mourn it because unacknowledged anger can turn into a soul-killing bitterness.
And then came the next episode.
The actor who plays Michael, Murray Bartlett, already has a body that required a suspension of disbelief in a character who’s supposedly old enough to have fully sampled San Francisco in its pre-AIDS heyday. But I wasn’t going to quibble too hard – casting such eye candy seemed like a reasonable concession to the need for good ratings. The writers insisted on making the sentiment Michael had so recently uttered an impossibility, when Ben, in a terrific row with Michael, lets a smoldering resentment explode: “You are a 54-year old man who can’t afford his apartment!”
Could the creators of this show not do math? 54 in 2019 would make Michael 15 in 1980, the very last year before gay life in San Francisco was irrevocably redefined by AIDS. This Michael Tolliver is way too young to have known that “sense of freedom, of fun, of invincibility” that he just shed tears over having lost. Perhaps the writers knew that the overwhelming majority of viewers would have a relatively vague idea of when AIDS began and wouldn’t be remotely bothered by this temporal mistake. Or maybe they didn’t think it was essential to respect the specifics of a seminal shift in gay history. Either possibility is depressing.
As I rewound to the scene of the dinner party that caused the rift between Michael and Ben, I also noted that all of the older “bitchy” queens were played by 60+ actors. The host of the dinner party, the handsome Harrison, who is supposedly bringing together a circle of friends from the “old days,” is played by a 38-year old actor. (It’s almost as if the filmmakers have never heard of IMDB.) Did no one think it was necessary to tell the casting agents to find age-appropriate eye candy? Like within 20 years of the character depicted.
I’m a writer who understands shaving chronology here or there for the sake of plot cogency. But wasn’t one of the points of making one more Tales of the City to teach the smartphone generation about LGBTQ history? And why is the past of Anna Madrigal so respectful of the age she would have been in the mid-sixties, but so loosey-goosey when it comes to the male characters?
My objections may seem picayune and curmudgeonly, so I’ll tell you why they’re not. I taught The Hours in community college, and not one student could come up with a reason why Michael Cunningham might have chosen to contrast London after the First World War with Manhattan of the late 80s. “Can anyone tell me what was happening in New York in 1989?” I asked. Nothing. “Why the two Clarissas might feel similarly haunted by death?” Not a clue.
Of course, I took the opportunity to teach them about the carnage of World War I and the carnage of AIDS at the height of the crisis, which I had directly lived through. But if not one of 40 students could link, you can be sure that represents 90% or so of their age cohort across the United States.
If that doesn’t scare you, it should. We who know history are the ones who must teach it – especially if we’re lucky enough to be in a position to reach millions.
These chronological faux pas were all the more irritating because they were unnecessary. Setting the series in 2005 would have aligned the story with history and allowed the same actors to be believably cast. The only casualty might have been the Instagram twins, but let’s face it, they were the least interesting subplot of the show. As for lamenting the price of San Francisco real estate – that could have stayed in. It’s been obscene for decades.