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'Tales' producer discusses return to 28 Barbary Lane
by Matt Simonette
2019-06-05

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Producer Alan Poul, who is gay and is among the returning crew and cast for Netflix's Tales of the City revival, said that he's "thrilled" to return to Armistead Maupin's cast of characters at 28 Barbary Lane.

"What's happening—to be able to come back 25 years later, to complete something you started 25 years before—where we can get that kind of closure, is impossible in this industry to even dream about," said Poul, who is currently filming another unrelated Netflix series in Paris.

The new Tales of the City, which debuts on Netflix on June 7, follows Mary Ann Singleton ( Laura Linney ), Anna Madrigal ( Olympia Dukakis ) and other returning Tales characters, as well as myriad younger Bay Area residents, decades after Mary Ann made her monumental 1976 trip from Cleveland to San Francisco.

New cast members include openly trans actor Jen Richards, openly lesbian actor Ellen Page and Zosia Mamet.

The first three Tales books had been adapted in 1993, 1998 and 2001. Maupin had written several other Tales books, however, so the new production personnel faced numerous narrative logistics, Poul said.

"We had to figure out what stories we wanted to tell," Poul recalled. "Did we want to go back in time? Did we want to cover the other books that Armistead wrote, or did we want to move forward? Once we decided to move forward, we decided it was best to bring an entire younger generation of people to explore gender and sexual issues that younger people are exploring today."

All of the new Tales' staff writers are queer, Poul noted. Much of the material was drawn from Maupin's later books, and done with his participation, but Poul said, "We really created a new show."

The circumstances of the new series' production were substantially different from that of the original 1993 series. The original was produced by Channel 4 in the U.K. and was then acquired by PBS for U.S. broadcasts. That drew the ire of right-wing elements who at the time objected to the program's depiction of LGBT themes, nudity and drug use.

Poul called the original series "a love letter to San Francisco and a love letter to humanity," adding, "We only had kindness in our hearts, so to be met with such a vicious backlash took us by surprise."

Now, Poul joked, that first program could run on broadcast TV.

"Television has grown up since then," he said. "All layers of television, but especially premium cable and streaming, have become much more used to inclusive storytelling and grown-up storytelling. Additionally—and I hate to use the word 'cinematic'—television is now shot in way that isn't fundamentally different from how movies are shot. Everybody has widescreen TVs, so you're able to shoot with the same sweep, scope and attention to detail that you would if you are making a movie."

But the biggest difference between this new series and its predecessors is not inherent in how it was produced but in how it will be watched, he added.

"We're used to a show that would roll out once a week, or three nights in a row," Poul said. "With Netflix, all episodes will be available worldwide on June 7. So if people want to plow through them at once, they can. If they want to take a few months, they can do that too."

Cast and crew were very aware that "it's a new era in representation," he added. "We tried to be incredibly authentic in our representation of the LGBT community, and to be as inclusive of all kinds of diversity that we can. Armistead was very aware when he started writing the books that he was writing to a largely white gay world. That was still brave in 1976. But as the world changed, fortunately, being a white gay man isn't so 'daring' anymore."

Poul has had a long career in television and film, and is perhaps best known for his work on Six Feet Under; he stayed on that HBO series for its entire five-season run and called it his "most satisfying job." Other credits include The Newsroom and Westworld.

His newest project, The Eddy, on which he's collaborating with La La Land director Damien Chazelle, is a Netflix series set in a Parisian jazz club, and will likely air in 2020.

"It's very different from Tales of the City," Poul said. "...I've been developing the show for as long as Tales of the City—they both were five years in the making, and they just happened to go right at the same time, back to back," Poul said.


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