Inside Netflix’s entire­ly queer writer’s room

Lauren Morelli takes Colin Crummy behind the scenes on Tales of the City, Netflix’s new drama set in San Francisco.

Tele­vi­sion writ­ers’ rooms are trend­ing. Arguably, giv­en that the writ­ing room deci­sions were the only real top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion on Red­dit, they were the stars of the Game of Thrones finale. Some (like the team behind Orange is the New Black) have such promi­nence that they have their own Twit­ter feed. And they are so demand, in an era of Peak TV, that they have spawned sub divi­sions like mini rooms (a catch all term for new, faster ways of devel­op­ing show ideas – many of which will not even make it to pilot). 

Like all things tele­vi­sion right now, the writ­ers room has got­ten star­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly at Net­flix, the stream­ing giant which is dri­ving so much inno­va­tion. We imag­ine it like a big cre­ative fac­to­ry, where scribes from G.L.O.W. get to break bread and share plot twists over lunch with the team behind Sex Edu­ca­tion. Oh that sounds love­ly but that is not what hap­pens,” laughs Lau­ren Morel­li, a for­mer writer on Orange is the New Black, now in charge of the writ­ers’ room on Netflix’s newest show, Tales of the City, which is set in San Francisco. 

Despite the set­ting of the show, they didn’t decamp to the Bay Area for pre-pro­duc­tion. We rent­ed an office in Hol­ly­wood for five months,” Morel­li con­firms. We had the real­ly sad ver­sion of San Fran instead. We had maps and pic­tures of San Francisco.”

Morel­li did have the nine nov­els by Armis­tead Maupin, which the new series reimag­ines, as her main ref­er­ence point. Tales of the City start­ed out as a news­pa­per col­umn penned by Maupin in 1976; it then went on to become a much loved book series and the sub­ject of two TV adap­ta­tions, all of which, in their time, broke the mould for queer representation. 

The sudsy dra­ma unfolds around strait-laced Mary Ann Sin­gle­ton, an Alice in Won­der­land type who takes up lodg­ings at 28 Bar­bary Lane. Here, min­gling with the oth­er, sex­u­al­ly diverse res­i­dents, Sin­gle­ton (and the audience’s) eyes are opened to a whole, new queer world. This revival sees her return for the 90th birth­day of land­la­dy Anna Madri­gal. The new show hon­ours the past (Sin­gle­ton and Madri­gal are played by orig­i­nal cast mem­bers Lau­ra Lin­ney and Olympia Dukakis) while updat­ing cast, char­ac­ters and per­spec­tives to bet­ter rep­re­sent the con­tem­po­rary LGBTQ+ community. 

Lauren Morelli

This is where Morel­li, who is gay, orig­i­nal­ly came in. She helped flesh out the show’s main, young les­bian char­ac­ter, Shaw­na, played by Ellen Page. They just want­ed to make sure they were get­ting her voice right and that they were authen­ti­cal­ly por­tray­ing a young queer woman,” Morel­li, who is mar­ried to Orange actor Sami­ra Wiley, says. Things snow­balled from there. I wrote a draft of the entire pilot and then when Net­flix picked up the series, they asked me to show run. It went from zero to six­ty fair­ly quickly.”

One of Morelli’s first deci­sions was to hire an entire­ly queer writ­ers room. I liked the state­ment of it,” she explains. I know what it’s like to be the only gay per­son to walk into any room. Whether that’s the room where we’re hav­ing Christ­mas din­ner or the space in which you work. We’ve become so accus­tomed to hav­ing to come out, to explain our­selves, hav­ing to rep­re­sent a spe­cif­ic iden­ti­ty for a group of peo­ple, which isn’t fair.”

So, on a show pre­dom­i­nant­ly about the expe­ri­ences of queer peo­ple, Morel­li need­ed more than one LGBTQ+ voice in the room. I tru­ly didn’t under­stand app cul­ture for gay men because it is not a part of my life,” she says, by way of exam­ple. I have gay male friends who talk about it but not until we were in the writ­ers’ room and hav­ing real­ly vul­ner­a­ble, intense con­ver­sa­tions about what that looks and feels like did I real­ly under­stand how ingrained it is in the day to day life of most gay men. If I’d sat down to write this show myself, I’d def­i­nite­ly got­ten that wrong because it would have been an approx­i­ma­tion.” In the end, she hired five peo­ple, all queer, for the job. 

Like Orange before it, Tales leans into on the inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty of its char­ac­ters. Anna Madri­gal is an elder­ly trans woman, Michael Mouse’ Tol­liv­er (played by Looking’s Mur­ray Bartlett in this reboot), is a white gay man who is in mid life and HIV+. New char­ac­ters include Jake, a young trans man of colour. 

These updates take show into the heart of cur­rent LGBTQ+ con­cerns, and con­flicts. In episode four, at a din­ner par­ty with a group of mid­dle aged, cis­gen­der, white gay men, the only younger, queer per­son of colour present calls them out on their trans­pho­bic lan­guage. One of the old­er men takes issue with being policed by a younger gen­er­a­tion that doesn’t know how good it has it. The scene erupts in argu­ments about priv­i­lege, race, class and queer history.

In the writ­ers’ room, the sto­ry­line was equal­ly divi­sive. Andy Park­er, who wrote the episode, brought in the orig­i­nal scene and peo­ple were very divid­ed on it,” says Morel­li. But that was good, the showrun­ner thinks. It’s impos­si­ble to not bring your own felt expe­ri­ence into those con­ver­sa­tions. Those imme­di­ate vis­cer­al respons­es helped us fine tune it until we got it to a place where hope­ful­ly you can be in either one of those char­ac­ters’ shoes and under­stand from an empa­thet­ic place where they are com­ing from.”

The writ­ing room has to be a safe place for hon­est con­ver­sa­tions, says Morel­li, who actu­al­ly came to real­i­sa­tion she was gay while writ­ing on Orange (she’s writ­ten about it here, if you want the full dra­ma). On Tales, this process con­tin­ued beyond the writ­ers’ room and onto the show’s set, where cast and crew include many LGBTQ+ hires. You get on set and you can turn to Gar­cia [a trans non bina­ry actor who plays Jake] and ask how does this feel to you?” says Morel­li. It was this evo­lu­tion that hope­ful­ly lands you in a place that feels more hon­est than it would have been if it had to have been just one per­son try­ing to imag­ine what these things might be like.”

Tales of the City streams on Net­flix from 7thJune

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