'Tales of the City' Netflix revival misses some tales worth telling

By Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) -- "Tales of the City" was groundbreaking when Armistead Maupin began writing it in the 1970s, and still felt very much that way when it became a PBS miniseries in 1993. After two follow-ups, the show makes a much-belated return, this time as a woefully uneven Netflix version that makes "Tales" look stale, proving even with the near-mystical 28 Barbary Lane, you can't always go home again.

That's the basic premise of this encore, which sees the wide-eyed Mary Ann traveling back to San Francisco for a birthday celebration of Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), still the caring den mother to the younger folks who reside at her welcoming complex.

To no one's surprise, Mary Ann winds up sticking around, offering the chance to reconnect with her daughter Shawna (Ellen Page) and ex-husband Brian (Paul Gross), who share time with an assortment of new characters, most saddled with the kind of stiff dialogue that amounts to making speeches more than actually conversing.

Slowly paced, there is a central mystery to help drive the story through the 10 episodes, involving someone, unknown, threatening to expose secrets from Anna's past. But too much of this "Tales" feels like simply spinning its wheels, providing an updated view of what it's like to life and love in San Francisco but building that around too many thinly drawn characters.

The major exceptions to that are an episode near the end of the run, which flashes back to a young Anna arriving in the city, offering a glimpse at just how grim the bad old days were. Not only does that chapter explain how she came to Barbary Lane, but it's imbued with a genuine emotion and depth that most of this "Tales of the City" lacks.

Similarly, there's a powerful sequence at a dinner party, in which older men lambaste a 20-something who has the temerity to chide them for the slang terminology they use, reminding him of all that they overcame and survived. If only more of "Tales of the City" crackled with that kind of energy and relevance.

In addition to Page, the more recognizable cast additions include Zosia Mamet ("Girls") as a young documentary filmmaker, but her direct-to-camera interviews feel like another over-used device in an attempt to give this "Tales" a 21st-century sheen.

Produced by Lauren Morelli ("Orange is the New Black"), "Tales of the City" does provide an intriguing referendum on how far TV (even if it's the streaming kind) has come since the original and even the sequels, which aired in 1998 and 2001. It's also an indication of the work that remains to be done, despite the strides by the LGBTQ movement -- both on TV and in society -- over the last quarter century.

Unfortunately, this "Tales of the City" is afflicted by issues that beset too many revivals, offering nostalgia but failing to do much more than cash in on its name recognition. On that level, it might pay off by Netflix's standards without crossing the creative threshold that would make this a tale worth telling.

"Tales of the City" premieres June 7 on Netflix.