DVD Review: Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (20th Anniversary Edition)



Before Downton Abbey, PBS viewers flocked to another period piece miniseries. Except this show wasn’t about proper post-Edwardian English society, but the freaky fun of San Francisco in 1976. Politicians went nuts over Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City since it dared to show gay characters and brief nudity in 1994. The conservative lawmakers were consumed with the belief that PBS used taxpayer’s money to produce the series. They didn’t want to reveal the truth that this American story was funded completely by England’s Channel 4. PBS paid a small price to air the series when all the other network and cable channels passed. Stations had the option to blur out the nudity so not to upset the easily upset. The ratings for the miniseries were high enough that it led to plenty of grateful viewers donating during pledge week to cover the cost. The controversy was a great source of free publicity for the public network. Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City: 20th Anniversary Edition brings back the show that launched diverse cast dramas such as Queer As Folk and The L Word.

Mary Ann Singleton (The Big C‘s Laura Linney) is a girl from the heartland who comes to San Francisco on vacation. She falls in love with the city by the Bay and calls home to let the folks know they can skip picking her up at the airport. She’s sticking around. She hasn’t a real plan of what to do, but knows she can stay with Connie Bradshaw (Party Girl‘s Parker Posey). This roommate situation doesn’t work out well since Connie likes to party and is loud. While apartment hunting, she wanders into 28 Barbary Lane. The large house complex is run by Anna Madrigal (Moonstruck‘s Olympia Dukakis), an elder hippie who is attuned with life. She likes leaving joints for her tenants. She determines that the house wants Mary Ann to be a resident. There are plenty of other colorful tenants. Mona Ramsey (Sid and Nancy‘s Chloe Webb) is an advertising executive who likes to be a tad outrageous. Her roomie Michael Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico) is looking for Mr. Right. Mary Ann gets work at Mona’s advertising agency. This is where we meet Edgar Halcyon (Logan’s Run‘s Donald Moffatt), the owner of the agency. He’s miserable in his marriage and ends up having an affair with Anna. To complicate things more is his son-in-law Beauchamp Day (Criminal Minds‘s Thomas Gibson) is also having a fling involving a resident. This is a time when people in San Francisco were letting it all hang out since AIDS hadn’t ravaged the fun.

The six hour miniseries is addictive viewing as it gets lost in the times. Don’t start watching the first episode too late at night because you’ll keep watching until sunrise. Mary Ann’s journey into the various lifestyles is a bit eye opening for anyone still back in the heartland. It was a carnal wonderland before people at the bath houses got sick. There’s a lot of supporting roles from surprise faces like Paul Dooley (Breaking Away), Syd Straw (singer), Ian McKellen (X-Men), Edie Adams (Ernie Kovacs Show), Mary Kay Place (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000), Janeane Garofalo and Bob Mackie (Cher’s Fashion Designer). This is the miniseries that proved there was an audience for non-traditional characters in leading roles. This show loosened up pay channel programmers to be open to make Queer As Folk, The L Word and Six Feet Under. Without Tales of the City, would there be a Logo TV on the cable dial? So many of the young actors were able to go on to bigger roles over the decades. It’s a good thing that uptight conservative politicians went on a rant about Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City so that viewers knew there was something really good on PBS.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The resolution isn’t that great. It looks like the show was cut on videotape. It’s a shame since this really needs to be remastered into HD. The audio is 2.0 stereo. The levels are fine and all the solid gold sounds of ’76 remain on the soundtrack.

Audio Commentaries on three of the episodes feature Amistead Maupin, Dukakis, Linney, Garrick and director Alastair Reed talking about the show.

Behind the Scenes (36 minutes) is home video shot by the director of rehearsals and location work. Check out the long ponytail on the dolly grip.

Amistead Maupin’s Tales From the City delves into San Francisco during the time when its residents could enjoy sexual liberation. The miniseres was controversial when it originally aired and remains entertaining after 20 years. This is the unblurred version of the miniseries.

Acorn Media presents Amistead Maupin’s Tales From the City. Directed by: Alastair Reed. Screenplay by: Richard Kramer and Armistead Maupin. Starring: Olympia Dukakis, Donald Moffat, Chloe Webb, Laura Linney, Marcus D’Amico and Thomas Gibson. Boxset Contents: Six episodes on 2 DVDs. Released: August 27, 2013.

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