Tales of the City: 20th Anniversary Edition: San Francisco Gay Classic Returns to DVD

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Olympia Dukakis as Mrs. Madrigal
One of the more delicious moments in this TV adaptation of Armistead Maupin's classic novel of life in 1970s San Francisco is a shot of neighbors Mouse (Marcus D'Amico) and Brian (Paul Gross) sunning themselves in the courtyard of 28 Barbary Lane, the fictional, friendly boarding house where they live. In the background, Maupin himself sits sits by a first floor window, watching them as he types furiously.

That scene perfectly illustrates how Tales of the City came into being. Maupin did what many writers have done: He observed his surroundings and the people in them. As a newly out gay man in the emerging gay mecca that was 1974 San Francisco, he wrote about what he saw. Tales of the City was the result. An instant hit, the book spawned seven more volumes, with an eighth in the works.

Eyebrows were raised when PBS adapted Tales of the City into a miniseries in 1993. Like the book, the TV version centered around a group of San Franciscans whose sexuality was open and fluid. Characters who publicly identified as straight could, on occasion, be found having a little fun with their own gender, Openly gay characters abounded. The stories were a time capsule of how people lived in 1970s San Francisco, the first mecca of sexual freedom in US history. What may have startled PBS viewers even more than Tales' storylines was it's unabashed nudity and language. More than a few characters shed their clothing and talked about who they wanted to fuck.

It was into this Oz like wonderland that wide-eyes Mary Ann (Laura Linney) arrives in 1976, when the somewhat naive young woman quickly learns that she's not in Cleveland anymore. She finds a home in the boarding house run by the wise and kindly Mrs. Madrigal (a flawlessly superb Olympia Dukakis). Mrs. M, a den mother to her tenants, is a middle aged, pot smoking free spirit who's been keeping quite a secret, as viewers find out when it's revealed why her ditzy, bisexual tenant Mona (Chloe Webb) is so important to her. Mrs. M is having an affair with Edward Halycon (Donald Moffatt), a dying millionaire who's philandering son-ln-law Beauchamp (Thomas Gibson) is bedding every woman in sight. Beauchamp is Mary Ann's boss. After they have a one nighter, it's revealed that the handsome Beau has also fooled around with Jon (Billy Campbell), who's dating Mary Ann's gay neighbor, the aforementioned Mouse.

And that's just for starters.

Tales of the City is a clever, tongue in cheek soap opera. Like the daytime dramas it may have intentionally imitated, the series follows the romantic and sexual lives of an intertwined group of people. But unlike the soaps of the 70s (or of the 90s) Tales' circle of friends fall into every category of the LGBT umbrella, with straights thrown in for good measure. Readers of the book and viewers of the miniseries join Mary Ann on her journey as she evolves from being shocked by what she sees to becoming a liberal and liberated woman who accepts everyone for who and what they are. The sexual and lifestyle experimentation she encounters all around her soon becomes a normal part of her everyday landscape.

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DVD box cover

On the surface, Tales of the City is a satirical look at a group of largely likable people who keep looking for love in all the wrong places. Reading between the lines, the story becomes an education in how different kinds of people life, and how each of them wants the same thing: to be loved and accepted for who they are.

Tales of the City is a wonderful miniseries which utilizes elements from Maupin's first two books. Linney is superb as Mary Ann, who shares central character status with the amazing Oscar winner Dukakis. The revelation of Dukakis' secret was quite a groundbreaker, both when the book was published and when the TV version was produced two decades later. Dukakis, one of our finest character actresses, commands the screen in every scene in which she appears. She displays true star quality in her role: as played by Dukakis, it's impossible to turn away when Mrs. M is on screen.

There are a few nice surprises in the Tales guest cast list: Oscar winner Rod Steiger, a major star of 1950s and 60s cinema, appears briefly as a bookstore owner.The great actress Karen Black, who recently passed away, appears briefly as herself. And Lance Loud of An American Family, the first reality series in American TV history, has a small role. In 1973, Loud made headlines when he came out on camera during An American Family's initial run. He's now credited as the tube's first ongoing gay character. But he was no "character." Loud was being himself.

One can't help but be slightly disappointed at Acorn Media's transfer of this enduring classic. The picture quality is, at times, slightly washed out and grainy. It's obvious that Acorn used older prints of Tales' six episodes. More's the pity, as the location filming throughout the City helped to Tales' the great production that it is: the sub-par quality of these discs detracts from the atmosphere. Tales has great historic significance in the annals of LGBT literature and television and is worthy of a remastered restoration.

The six one hour episodes are presented on two discs. Episodes one, three and six include a lively commentary track with Dukakis, Linney, Maupin, director Alistair Reid and Barbara Garrick, who played Beauchamp's long suffering wife. Behind the scenes footage and a commemorative booklet are also included.

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