If you've been avoiding watching the Tales of the City reboot on Netflix because you don't know any of the backstory — or you watched one episode and felt like you were missing too much backstory — you're now in luck.
The original PBS mini-series based on Armistead Maupin's first 1978 collection of his serial columns from the San Francisco Chronicle (which confusingly has a the same title as the reboot series, Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City) is now available for streaming on Netflix. It features Laura Linney in her breakout role as Mary Ann Singleton, long before she gained accolades (and Oscar nods) for films like You Can Count on Me, and The Savages, and TV series like The Big C and John Adams. At 25 (Linney was only 29 at the time), Mary Ann is delighted by the oddness and sexual freedom she experiences upon landing in San Francisco for a vacation. And soon we're introduced to her flight attendant friend Connie (Parker Posey), with whom she asks to crash — in the later iterations of the franchise that aired on Showtime, Connie gives birth to the baby who becomes Shawna in the reboot, and later dies.
Episode 1 alone is charming from its opening scene, showing Mary Ann at the Buena Vista Cafe, drinking her second Irish coffee while phoning her Midwestern mother to tell her she isn't coming home. "You can't just run off from your family and friends for a bunch of hippies," her mother cries. There is also spooky opening music and plenty of moody references to Hitchcock's Vertigo, which were part of Maupin's original intention. And the writing, admittedly, is way better in this original series than in the new one, which ended up falling into some highly implausible and goofy plot lines.
When Mary Ann arrives at Connie's apartment she's immediately horrified to see Playgirl and The Joy of Sex on the coffee table. And when she asks what Connie does for fun, she opens up a magazine and shows her an ad for a co-ed bathhouse. When Mary Ann balks, Connie just says, "C'mon! Give it time. This city loosens people up."
Many have pointed out that the reboot has played a bit with time — Shawna is supposed to be 25 years old, and Mary Ann about 50 or 55, but the new series takes place in 2019, or 41 years after the original, which would have made Mary Ann 66, and Anna Madrigal far older than 90. But if you can get over that suspension of the laws of time, you will likely enjoy seeing the original.
As Vulture writes, "In this modern world of prequels, the experience of seeing the original after partaking of the new could arguably be as rich as watching them sequentially."