The year is 1976. Welcome to San Francisco. Originally airing on PBS in 1993, "Tales of the City" has now made its way to DVD. This highly acclaimed, and controversial miniseries tells the story of the people who live in an apartment building on 28 Barbary Lane. I remember when I heard this show was going to be broadcast in primetime on PBS, there was a massive uproar over it's content, as it would be broadcast uncut in its full glory. But once you get past the excessive nudity and the language, what we're left with is one of the more interesting dramas ever to hit television.
Set in a time before anybody knew what AIDS stood for, the streets of San Fran were awash with drugs and the sexual promiscuousness of its residents (both straight and gay). Now it's time to meet the naïve Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney). She has enjoyed her stay so much in San Francisco that she has decided to make it her permanent residence. She moves into 28 Barbary Lane, finds a job, and slowly loses her innocence in a city filled with sin.
Before we get into the episode summaries, let me introduce you to the other tenants of 28 Barbary Lane. Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) is the landlady of the apartment complex, who views her tenants as her children. Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb) plays a hippy-type character in search of true love, but finds herself always surrounded by gay men. Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Marcus D'Amico) is Mona's gay roommate. Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross) is a ladies man who does whatever he can to get laid. Norman Neal Williams (Stanley Destansis) plays the mysterious tenant that later develops a relationship with Mary Ann.
"Tales of the City" features 6 episodes, each having a running time of approximately 50 minutes. Below are episode summaries broken down per disc. Be forewarned, there are some potential spoilers in their descriptions.
Episode One - Mary Ann Singleton telephones her mother and tells her she won't be coming back home, and has decided to stay in San Francisco. After an unusual stay at her friend Connie's apartment, she decides to look for a place, and ends up making 28 Barbary Lane her new residence. Throughout the episode, Mary Ann is introduced to the oddball residents of her apartment building, and is immediately weirded out by their lifestyles. Laura Linney is great here as the nervously shy Mary Ann, in a fish-out-of-water way.
Episode Two - Everybody is hooking up. A weekend getaway leads to Mary Ann and her boss's married son, Beauchamp, having sex. Ironically, Beauchamp's wife, DeDe, enjoys the company of a grocery boy. Connie celebrates her birthday by having sex with a guy she meets at the Laundromat. My favorite moment of the episode is when Brian Hawkins, the local lothario, attends a co-ed bathhouse looking for some action, and winds up having to deny ever being a homosexual (which he isn't).
Episode Three - Mary Ann meets the enigmatic Norman Neal Williams, and is confronted by DeDe (who later runs off to a fat farm because of an insensitive comment from Beauchamp). Mary Ann and Vincent work and bond at the crisis switchboard. Anna's beau, Edgar, informs her that he doesn't have much time left to live. And finally, "Mouse" wins the Mr. Endup Contest. It's a good episode that also includes the return of Mona's ex lover D'Orothea.
Episode Four - Mona moves out of her apartment so she can live with D'orothea. Anna and Edgar continue to enjoy each other's company, and they eventually consummate their relationship. Michael's "uninformed" parents visit him in San Francisco, which causes him more stress than he'd prefer. DeDe is pregnant, and weighs between the decision of keeping it or having an abortion. Mary Ann and Norman take a girl treak-or-treating, and realize they like being around each other.
Episode Five - Michael's parents leave, while Brian goes home with a waitress, and ends up having sex with someone else. Norman investigates Anna, who later discloses a big secret to Edgar, who is being blackmailed. Problems between DeDe and Beauchamp continue, as he finds out about her pregnancy. Brian and Michael go clubbing (Janeane Garofalo fans will enjoy her brief appearance here).
Episode Six - This episode is where everything comes to a head. Anna Madrigal throws a Christmas Party for her tenants. Mona moves back into 28 Barbary Lane after finding out the truth about her lover. Mary Ann suspects that there's something up with Norman, and later finds out what's really going on with him (which has a tragic ending). Brian looks for a date for the Xmas party. Finally, Anna leaves something special on Edgar's grave.
"Tales of the City" is presented in full frame 1.33:1. The video transfer is extremely soft and grainy (it was shot and filmed in 1993, so it may have been intentionally shot this way to capture the feel of 1976 San Francisco). The grain gets worse during scenes shot at night. The best way to describe the video here is that it looks like it was originally created for broadcast England, and then was transferred over to the US (PAL/NTSC conversion). If you're a quality buff and have never seen the show, you'll be disappointed with "Tales of the City." But since I've never saw this show when it first aired on PBS, I can only assume that the video quality either equals or is better than it's broadcast version.
The audio is presented in Dolby 2.0. There are no audio dropouts whatsoever, and character dialogue is crisp and clean. There's not much to write about in this department, as there is nothing within the show that will test your sound system. The show is, for the most part, all dialogue driven. For example, club scenes with music blaring in the background sound a little hollow and flat. Overall, I wasn't expecting much in the audio department, and as a result, I wasn't disappointed.
Every DVD has the same exact menu. A static screen with the show's theme song playing in the background allows you to select between the following three options: "Episode Selection" (2 episodes per disc), "Scene Index", and "Special Features." Everything is laid out nicely.
"Tales of the City" contains a good collection of goodies. There are commentaries on the first, third, and sixth episode. The commentaries feature comments from creator Armistead Maupin, director Alastair Reid, Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney, and Barbara Garrick. Unfortunately, this is a compilation commentary, as each person's comments are recorded separately and glued together. Most times I hate this kind of commentary, but for "Tales of the City" it just works. At times it's screen specific, and other times, it discusses some behind-the-scenes stuff.
On the first disc is a "Behind the Scenes" featurette. Divided up into 9 parts, the clips were shot on 8mm home video during production, and are definitely fun to have (rehearsing and filming certain scenes). Also included on the first disc is a "Armistead Maupin Biography" as well as "Cast Biographies."
"Tales of the City" is a very good miniseries. The commentaries are a welcomed bonus, but unfortunately the video and audio leave a lot to be desired. Add to that the rather high price tag of $59.95 for just 6 episodes, and I'm torn on how I should recommend the DVD set. Therefore, if you've seen the show and love it, it's a no-brainer. Otherwise, I assume you have not seen the show, and as a result, I'll stick with giving this a "Recommended."