I remember reading someone describing San Francisco as being a country separate from the rest of the United States. However, not only is it different from the rest of the country, it’s even quite different from the rest of the State of California.
How else could you explain the city home as to The Grateful Dead, Grace Slick, and City Lights Book Store and part of a system which elected both Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor? To the rest of the country, San Francisco has always represented either freedom or licentiousness personified, depending on your perspective. It was here flower power and drugs bloomed the strongest in the 1960s and the sexual revolution flourished during the early years of the 1970s.
While outsiders might have had their own ideas of what went on in the city by Pacific Ocean, it took an insider to tell the story of the people and the places where it all happened. Armistead Maupin wrote with honesty and objectivity about an era now coloured by the spectre of AIDS, and managed to capture both the innocence and sadness of the times. His books were love stories, comedies and historical records of a time of excitement and exploration which will probably never come again. In 1993 the first of these books was made into a television mini-series. Now, 20 years later, the series is being honoured with the release of a newly packaged and remastered special edition, Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition, by Acorn Media.
As you may have figured out the story takes place in the mid ’70s when the sexual revolution. Literally fresh off the bus from Cleveland Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) is both shocked and thrilled by what she sees around her. Although she’s nowhere near ready for the club scene and the rotating partners that goes with it, she loves the freedom and opportunities the city has to offer. Her entrance into life in San Francisco is eased along when she responds to an add for an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane. With landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) playing den mother to its collection of tenants, Barbary Lane and its inhabitants quickly becomes the focal point of the story.
Via Mary Jane, we meet the very liberated Mona Ramsey, (Chloe Webb) her gay sometime room mate Michael “Mouse” Toliver (Marcus D’Amico) and the happily straight Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross). It’s through Mona, Mary Jane lands her first job in the city, secretary to the head of the advertising firm her neighbour works for, Edgar Halcyon. (Donald Moffat)
With Barbary Lane as the nexus for the story, we travel all over the city and the surrounding areas, meeting people from all social backgrounds. We watch the central characters’ struggles with life and love as they look for just the right person to share their lives with. What makes the show so special is the wonderful depth to each character. From country club going Halcyon to seemingly carefree bachelor Hawkins, there is more to each of them than we first realize. While books are known for the way in which they allow characters to develop, it’s rare to see the same thing in a television series. Normally a show like this would be more caught up in what the people do than in who they are. Thankfully, that’s not the case here.
The script carefully takes us through each characters’ experiences, and uses them to give us a more complete picture of who they are. Even better, is how the actors allow themselves to be guided by the script. As a result, watching the people on screen is like getting to know people in real life. The more time we spend with them, the more we come to understand and appreciate them, just like we would with anyone else new in our lives. It’s in this way we gradually see the nice man hiding behind the swinger in Brian Hawkins as he shows unexpected compassion and empathy towards the various women he encounters in bars and bed.
We also learn how vulnerable and insecure both Mouse and Mona really are. Webb does a wonderful job of showing the cracks in her character’s veneer of coolness, and the sense of loss she seems to be carrying with her. D’Amico does a great job of portraying the looking for love in all the wrong places Mouse. Unlike many of the gay men he meets, he’s not interested in one night stands, but is looking for his one true love. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to be having much luck as his partners keep turning out to be inappropriate or far less interested in commitment than he is.
Of course at the centre of everything are Dukakis and Linney. While Singleton’s brittle innocence is a bit trying at times, Linney does a remarkable job of showing her character’s gradual willingness to be more open and accepting. She gradually learns to set aside her Cleveland morality and learn the value of loyalty and friendship, no matter how odd those friends might be. As for Dukakis, she looks like she was born to play Anna Madrigal. On the surface outrageous and eccentric – she gifts each new tenant with a carefully rolled joint made with the pot she grows in her garden – she has a secret buried beneath her poetry quoting exterior and a sentimental streak as a wide as any of the youngsters in her charge.
Watching her gradually developing relationship with Halcyon is a thing of beauty. Both Dukakis and Moffat do a wonderful job of showing how love isn’t only for young people. While he gradually reveals the man who has hidden behind propriety and suits all his life, she lets us see the tender heart beating beneath Madrigal’s eccentricity. These two old pros steal the show away from the youngsters without even trying, and their scenes together are some of the best in the series.
With the show having been originally aired in 1993, even digital remastering isn’t able to compensate for any of the original deficiencies in audio. Still, all things considered, the quality is more than adequate for watching on a home theatre system if you remember to set your system for stereo transmission instead of surround sound. While the special features on the disc are limited to video of rehearsal and a couple of behind the scenes shots, the booklet included in the DVD package provides a great deal of information about the series and the book its based on.
Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition is a wonderful reminder of just how great character driven television can be when performed and scripted well. Its also a beautiful trip back in time. While the show makes no secret of how many people during the 1970s were more concerned with self-gratification than anything else, we also see how there was also a level of innocence sadly lacking today. It was a time of exploration and self-discovery as well and never has this strange dichotomy been captured on film quite as well as is done here. This is one of those rare times when the adaptation does a book proud. It not only captures the action of the original but the spirit as well.