The TV Series:
Tales of the City takes viewers back to a simpler time when music was funky, sex was free-flowing, and people weren't so uptight - the early '90s. Acorn Media's 20th Anniversary edition of this acclaimed boob tube miniseries doesn't offer much of anything new, but seeing it again is like getting a surprise visit from some cherished old friends.
Immediately upon its original airings - on the UK's Channel 4 in 1993, then the following January on PBS - the six-part Tales of the City gained an appreciative following. The fun and frothy '70s flashback was a pitch-perfect recreation of Armistead Maupin's best-selling novels. In depicting a diverse group of San Franciscans coping with life in the Gerald Ford/Jimmy Carter era, the production got the period trappings right (down to the vintage Oui and Playgirl magazines strewn about in one character's pad), along with a positive commitment to translating the heart and soul in Maupin's stories. The show was also subject to a lot of controversy in its day, which now seems quaint.
Hollywood's efforts to bring Maupin's popular novels to the screen never amounted to much, until Great Britain's Channel 4 came to the rescue and financed this particular production (despite what many zealot Republicans of the day said, PBS had zero financial participation in this). With Maupin's active participation, a cast of mostly theater-groomed American actors, and filming in a combination of famous San Francisco locales and well-designed studio settings, the resulting series is about as perfect as a literature-to-screen transition can be. While it seems surprising that something so lightweight and fun could be a lightning rod for controversy, it did ruffle some feathers due to the series' playful and realistic gay and lesbian pairings, along with a few completely natural instances of nudity (male and female), non-judgmental drug use, and coarse language. Nudity on PBS? Hard to believe, but there it was. Tales' American broadcast got record ratings, but the threat of funding cuts from Uncle Sam forced PBS to hand over broadcast rights to the sequels to Showtime. That's progress for you.
Tales' screenplay, co-written by Maupin and Richard Kramer, sustains the casual, laid-back vibe of the books with a host of human, subtly written characters. Rather than go into the details of the plot, let's get to know each major character:
- Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) - prim, blonde, Midwestern girl eager for adventure in the Big City. While Mary Ann goes to great lengths to prove she isn't all that naive (like having an affair with her married co-worker), she has a lot to learn over the course of this saga.
- Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Marcus D'Amico) - like Mary Ann, another young transplant to San Francisco (by way of Orlando, Florida). Michael is well-versed in the ways of the local gay scene, but he's a hopeless romantic and sweet country boy at heart.
- Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb) - Michael's sardonic best friend, Mona freely dispenses both clever quips and hard drugs. Her hippie-ish demeanour is similar to her landlady (below), but the two share a lot more than Mona initially realizes.
- Mrs. Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) - free-spirited, joint-dispensing landlady and mother hen to the denizens at 28 Barbary Lane. Mrs. Madrigal's generous exterior shields what is a wounded woman with a complicated past.
- Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffatt) - business leader and part of San Francisco's Old Money, Edgar heads the advertising agency where Mona and Mary Ann work. His affair with Mrs. Madrigal helps him cope with the "straight" life and a devastating medical diagnosis - which is kept from his bewildered wife, Frannie (Nina Foch).
- Beauchamp Day (Thomas Gibson) - Edgar's rakish son-in-law, who carries on not-so-discreet affairs behind his wife's back.
- Dee Dee Halcyon Day (Barbara Garrick) - Beauchamp's repressed wife, a tightly coiled woman yearning to escape high society and go guerilla (think Patty Hearst). A visit with her gynecologist (Billy Campbell) brings life-altering news.
- Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross) - handsome bachelor neighbor at Barbary Lane, perfectly in tune with the city's casual vibe. Brian helps himself to the all-you-can-eat buffet of available single women in S.F., including Mary Anne's dippy friend Carrie (Parker Posey). His promiscuous ways would soon come to an end, however.
- Norman Neal Williams (Stanley DeSantis) - The least sociable 28 Barbary Lane resident, the outsider status of older, bespectacled Norman brings out the empathy in Mary Ann, who slowly befriends him. An unsavory side of Norman is revealed when he uncovers Mrs. Madrigal's secret past.
Watching Tales when it originally aired as a barely closeted 25 year-old, I remember it as being something of an event. I was a huge fan of the books, and I wasn't let down. Laura Linney embodied that certain vulnerable yet stable quality that the fictional Mary Anne had (what a fantastic performance!), and Marcus D'Amico nailed Michael's adventurous spirit and boy-next-door appeal. Both totally epitomized their characters. The show was also notable for having a passionate, realistic romance between two older characters, Mrs. Madrigal and Edgar - how often does that happen? The Showtime sequels More Tales of the City (1998) and Further Tales of the City (2001) were just as faithful to the source novels, but they weren't nearly as endearing as the originals. While Laura Linney still rocks it as Mary Ann, several other key roles were re-cast, and since Maupin's books got progressively more silly over time it just wasn't as intriguing. As with the Star Wars saga, the monumental original proved to be a tough act to follow.
Acorn Media's 20th Anniversary Edition of Tales in the City is an update on the now out-of-print 2003 edition put out by the same company. With this release, you do get an updated menu and package design with the two discs housed in a not as bulky slip-covered, standard-width amaray case. While there were complaints relating to dubbed-over dialogue with the earlier edition, this release appears to be an uncensored duplicate of the American broadcast - with the original K-Tel-riffic music left intact.
Disappointingly, it appears that this edition uses the same soft-focus, grainy transfer from the 2003 set. The 4:3 picture's shoddy second-hand look (film transferred to video?), especially noticeable during dark scenes, places the quality several steps below the 1994 broadcast version. Even the VHS release from the '90s looked nicer. Not helping matters is the increased video compression (the earlier set alotted two hour-long episodes to a disc; this one has three), giving the image a pixelated texture.
The stereo soundtrack is a serviceable listen with a somewhat flat feel (especially the scenes backed with period pop music), but the dialogue is clear and pristine with no outstanding flaws. English SDH subtitles are supplied on every episode.
Most of the extras from the 2003 set are retained here, including the Audio Commentaries on three episodes from Maupin, Dukakis, Linney, Garrick and director Alastair Reed. These are recorded separately and are generally not scene-specific, but contain a host of interesting tidbits on the production. Some production background is supplied on 36 minutes' worth of behind-the-scenes location and rehearsal footage. Finally, an 8-page fold-out booklet contains an introduction by Maupin, notes by producer Alan Poul, and liner notes on the series' various San Francisco locales.
As portrayed in the six-hour Tales of the City miniseries, Armistead Maupin's joyous, fairy tale rendition of 1970s San Francisco is so fabulous, one could almost forgive Acorn for the crappy image and calculated recycling in their 2-disc 20th Anniversary Edition. Along with Twin Peaks and The X-Files, it's a highlight of edgy '90s television. Those who already own Acorn's 2003 release have no need to double-dip with the downgraded 2-disc 20th Anniversary Edition, however. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.