Acorn Media has released Tales of the City: 20th Anniversary Edition. It’s hard to believe that two decades have passed since the debut on PBS of the ground-breaking miniseries, which is based on the popular novel by Armistead Maupin.
It’s as enjoyable as ever to watch fresh-from-Cleveland Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), an extremely naive, yet ready-to-experience-life young lady make her way through mid-1970s San Francisco. Practically from the first moments she arrives at 28 Barbary Lane, an apartment building managed by the eccentric Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), Mary Ann is exposed to all that is wild and wooly about her newfound home, including drugs, sex, and a little bit of rock and roll and 1970s sitcoms thrown in for context.
Mary Ann quickly makes friends with many of the building’s residents: womanizer Brian (Paul Gross), bisexual Mona (Chloe Webb), and Mona’s roommate, the lovable Michael, called Mouse (Marcus D’Amico). She also eventually befriends the mysterious Norman (Stanley DeSantis) who lives up on the roof. Tales of the City is a sort of roundelay, its intertwining plots circling around to include others in Mary Ann’s circle, including her boss, Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat), and his son-in-law Beauchamp (pronounced Beecham) Day (Thomas Gibson), whose eye roves in many directions.
Everyone at Barbary Lane (and it seems San Francisco) has a secret, and Tales of the City has fun revealing them all. The director, Alastair Reid (Traffik), is not too shy to even pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic San Francisco-set classic, Vertigo, in a few key scenes. Some of the characters’ secrets seem not so shocking or surprising as much as far-fetched (especially those of Mona’s girlfriend D’orothea), but there is something so good-natured and free-wheeling about Tales of the City that the viewer can forgive some of the plot excesses and just sit back and enjoy the ride along with the great ensemble cast.
The two-disc set includes all of the original six episodes with SDH subtitles (and a total running time of 321 minutes); some exclusive making-of and rehearsal footage; audio commentaries with the writer, director, and stars Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney, and Barbara Garrick; and a commemorative pamphlet that includes essays by Maupin and producer Alan Paul, as well as a guide to the familiar San Francisco landmarks that appear in the series.
As fun as it is to catch up again with Mary Ann and the gang, the picture is not as sharp and crisp as high-definition viewers may have become accustomed. There doesn’t seem to have been any effort to refine the images, so for viewers like me who were first introduced to Laura Linney in Tales of the City so many years ago — the picture quality hasn’t changed; only our television screens have gotten bigger. Still, it is fun to walk down Barbary Lane once again, and see all the familiar faces who turn up, including Billy Campbell, Parker Posey, Nina Foch, Paul Bartel, Meagen Fay, Bob Mackie, Ian McKellen, Janeane Garofolo, and many more. Maybe the 25th anniversary will bring a re-mastered version.