Life Among the Fleshpots of San Francisco: ‘Tales of the City’

Tales of the City was an absolute revelation when it ran on PBS in 1994, and not just because public television was showing a mini-series full of sex and drugs and gay characters who were part of a community and had lives and loves as real and complex as those granted the straight characters. That’s all very nice, but Tales of the City spoke directly to me because it was about a naïve and painfully unhip young woman from the Midwest choosing to leave behind her safe, programmed life in Cleveland, where the height of aspiration is living in one of “those new places out at Ridgemont” (with curtains custom-made by her mother), and take a chance on creating her own life among the fleshpots of San Francisco.

Here’s two other things that seem revelatory in retrospect, although I didn’t notice them back in 1994: 1) although Tales of the City features a large and varied cast of characters, the two most central are both female, and 2) Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), the young woman determined to leave Cleveland behind, is awkward and unsure and makes a lot of mistakes in the process of finding her life (note: her life, not just Mr. Right). On the first point, it’s no secret that American television and films these days are dominated by stories about men (check out some of the research posted on if you don’t believe me). As for the second, I’ve always been allergic to the wish-fulfillment type of story, in which everyone gets what they want much too easily, while hardly seeming to set a foot wrong in the process.

Of course, two decades can be an eternity when it comes to pop culture, so a revelatory mini-series of 20 years ago could easily seem hackneyed today. That’s not exactly the case with Tales of the City, but watching it again after all those years, I was far more aware of its flaws, while still enjoying its good qualities. I also noticed many, many things that I missed the first time, including copious Vertigo references as well as clever little clues planted almost from the start that foreshadow the big reveal near the end.

Tales of the City is based on a novel written by Armistead Maupin and published serially (just like Charles Dickens!) in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1978. It focuses on a diverse of characters living in an apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane, a fictional address whose real life counterpart is the woodsy Macondray Lane on Russian Hill. The landlady, Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis, in one of her great roles), grows her own pot and, in her own words, “has no objection to anything.” Mary Anne moves in, and soon meets the other residents, including the tie-dyed fag hag Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb) and her gay best friend Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico), the very handsome and quite aware of it Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross), and the rather disturbed Norman Neal Williams (Stanley DeSantis).

Mary Anne quickly finds a job working at an ad agency run by Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat), a plot move that brings in a whole new flock of characters, including Halcyon’s wife Frannie (Nina Foch), daughter DeDe Halycon Day (Barbara Garrick), and slimy son-in-law Beauchamp Day (Thomas Gibson). And therein lies my main difficulty with Tales of the City: while I love the scenes featuring the residents of 28 Barbary Lane, there’s far much too much screen time wasted on rich people who are so whiny and boring that I don’t feel sorry for them, I just want them to go away. Not Edgar, though: Maupin made him a complex, sympathetic character, and provided him with a secret (revealed to the audience early in the first episode, but not to the other characters until much later) that pushes him to seek something more than his rote, rich white guy existence.

Tales of the City is constructed as a series of blackout scenes, cutting abruptly among the different story lines, which frequently cross and thus bring characters from the different stories in contact with each other. This approach is faithful to the original material, and also feels true to my experience of life in the big city, which can feel like a very small town at times. It’s also worth noting that this type of construction felt a lot fresher before it was done to death by Alejandro González Iñárritu and his imitators (note: Tales of the City aired in the U.K. seven years before Amores perros hit the big screen).

The production design (Victoria Paul), costumes (Molly Maginnis), art direction (Lee Mayman) and set decoration (Joyce Anne Gilstrap) of Tales of the City are all excellent—the screen is simply overflowing with the highlights and lowlights of Seventies culture, and that’s another great pleasure of watching this mini-series. Unfortunately, the visual quality of the DVDs are poor: the colors are frequently muddy, and the picture is soft and grainy, to the point where you frequently have to watch through the images rather than immersing yourself in the experience.

The two-DVD set of Tales of the City comes with some nice extras, including an eight-page insert with notes from Armistead Maupin and producer Alan Poul, commentary tracks for three of the episodes, and thirteen behind-the-scenes clips showing rehearsals, set construction, and the filming process.

RATING 6 / 10