How long has it been since you've been to 28 Barbary Lane? Unfortunately, "Tales of the City" (1993) is currently out of print on VHS and unavailable on DVD, but DVD International has released the sequel, "Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City" as part of their Prestige Collection. Picking up six weeks after the conclusion to "Tales...," "More Tales" is more 'out there,' no pun intended, than it's predecessor. The subplots are wackier and slightly more soap opera-ish, but the same engaging characters and most of the original cast return, making this visit to the city worth taking, especially to series fans.
For those unfamiliar with author Maupin's six books about 28 Barbary Lane, they chronicle the lives and loves of it's residents, neighbors who are closer to one another than they are to their biological families. There is also the nostalgia factor--the setting is 1970s San Francisco, and the city is a vital character. With gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters outnumbering straight characters, the popular stories have attained cult status, and rightly so--the characters are so well defined, their bonds so established, that they're like old friends you can't wait to catch up with.
The double-disc DVD release retails for $49.98. Disc 1 contains the first four episodes, access menus and commentary. While the entire series has a running time of 290 minutes, the commentary doesn't run as long. Some chapters feature no commentary at all, others include the contributions of multiple, though isolated, commentators. Maupin and stars Olympia Dukakis (Anna Madrigal), Laura Linney (Mary Ann Singleton) and Barbara Garrick (DeDe Halcyon Day) provide insights ranging from things technical to production anecdotes to their thoughts on the project and each other to, perhaps most interestingly, the battle to get "More Tales" made. (PBS, in spite of the immense success of the "Tales of the City" miniseries, dragged their heels when it came to making the sequel, and the series eventually found a new home at Showtime, which aired the six risque one-hour installments. While the homophobic aspects of the production difficulties is saddening, the determination of Maupin and the cast to have their voices, and those of the Barbary Lane dwellers, heard is inspiring.)
Disc 2 contains episodes 5 and 6, as well as a wealth of supplementary material. Aside from access menus and more audio commentary, there are cast biographies (some with video Q&A clips), a list of cameo appearances and production bios. Behind the scenes material includes "Rehearsal and Filming" segments that feature onset footage of Maupin, Terry Anderson (Maupin's partner and the series' creative consultant) and director Pierre Gang with the cast and crew as four important scenes are rehearsed and shot, and a look at the 28 Barbary Lane set. In a nice touch, after the behind the scenes featurettes play, the final cut for each scene plays automatically. The look at the set includes a video tour shot by Anderson, which is brief and not very in-depth, as well as still-frame gallery of blueprints for the set. [It should be noted that the quality of the behind the scenes footage and set tour is less than perfect; the menus for them contain "Any audio and picture flaws are inherent in the source material" warnings, though the material, for the most part, looks fine.]
There are also four deleted scenes containing footage from unedited takes. Though the sound and picture are unpolished, the inclusion of the scenes is a pleasing extra. Maupin talks about the scenes via an audio commentary coined, "The Landlord Speaks." The Landlord also speaks in the first of two scrapbook pieces, a feature entitled "From the Page," which includes some letters and handwritten script pages by teleplay co-writers Maupin and Nicholas Wright related to three new scenes that weren't in the original novel (direct links to those scenes are also included). The second piece is a photo gallery of the production.
Rounding out the special features are notes about Anita Bryant and her 1977 "Save Our Children" campaign (in the series, one of her appearances prompts character Michael Tolliver to come out to his parents) and it's importance to the gay community, the Internet addresses of 28 Barbary Lane Online (www.talesofthecity.com) and DVD International and a preview of Video Essentials. An 8-page color booklet boasts an introduction by Maupin, an essay by writer Stephen McCauley and a complete index of chapters that also references when an audio commentary is optional, as well as identifying the commentator(s).
The audio and visual quality of "Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City" ranges from good to great. The standard format picture suffers from occasional grain, but for a television presentation it looks very good most of the time. Despite a lack of crispness (detail isn't as clear as it could be in dark scenes), the colors are well saturated and skin tones natural throughout. Likewise, the soundtrack is good--the score and dialogue are all understandable, but you may need to up the volume a bit during a few scenes containing phone or otherwise low-voiced conversations.
As a note of interest, "Further Tales of the City" is in production and will air in 2001. The cast, fortunately, remains largely intact.