TV REVIEW : Bay Living Before the Big Chill : PBS Miniseries ‘Tales of the City’ a Sexual Landmark


Years from now, television may look back at PBS’ groundbreaking six-hour “American Playhouse” series “Tales of the City” and say this is where broadcast television really grew up, where mainstream viewers finally welcomed diverse sexual behavior--straight, gay, young and old--in TV drama.

Of course, it’s equally probable that most viewers aren’t ready for this spinning constellation of sexual entanglements featuring a funky group of characters sharing a magical Russian Hill boardinghouse in pre-AIDS, 1976 San Francisco. (The miniseries airs at 9 tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15.)

The show’s sobering, onscreen cautionary signal--”Viewer Discretion Advised”--is humorously balanced by a lighter advisement--”Leisure Suits Optional.” And, indeed, much that follows does cast a nostalgic, satiric glow. What lingers, however, is the sense of a TV drama ahead of its time, too candid and risky for prime time (cable or network). In fact, several Hollywood companies turned the project down; it got on the air because of financial backing from Britain’s Channel 4.


With Olympia Dukakis the nominal star as a warm, spirited landlady and marijuana-gardening mother hen to a flock of gay and straight tenants, the story is an arabesque of revolving dark, comic and tender couplings.


Included are naked people frolicking on a beach, two gay men French kissing long and hard in an open convertible stopped in the middle of a street, and a hilarious female panel discussion called “Rap About Rape,” in which the arch hostess asks the women to “share an experience where your person was violated.” One nervous respondent (Barbara Garrick), embarrassed because she has never been assaulted, concocts a story about being raped in her kitchen by the grocery boy, to accompanying gasps.

Inventively adapted by “thirtysomething” writer-producer Richard Kramer and directed with panache by Alastair Reid, the material originally appeared as fictional stories in a San Francisco newspaper column written by Armistead Maupin (and later turned into an internationally popular sextet of novels titled “Tales of the City”).

On one level, TV’s re-creation is fascinating social history, a brilliant evocation of a time and place.

For those who deeply inhaled the by-now-blurry ‘70s (characters smoke pot throughout the movie), the episodes sweep you back to a time that seems half a century ago--when macrame and bell-bottoms, bathhouses and unsafe sex framed what seemed the last unfettered sexual holiday.

In fact, the overall effect of these tales recalls an earlier generation re-entering another flamboyant era that also shattered its fathers’ values: the Jazz Age. Dukakis even quotes a line from Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic “The Great Gatsby”: “She was a woman who was meant to be kissed on the eyes.” Kramer’s script is full of such surprises.


Anchoring much of the plot, which might be likened to an unflinching, adult version of “Melrose Place,” is a sweet, naive hayseed from the Midwest (demurely played by Laura Linney). Serving as the moral counterpoint to the amoral characters orbiting about her, the very centered Linney catches the excitement of moving to the big city and the cool reality of momentarily succumbing to a married cad (Thomas Gibson) who is a closet gay.

Significantly, the homosexual activity in the stories, essentially off camera, is portrayed as a casual given and, most refreshingly, is free of doom and gloom. Gay and lesbian characters (the latter represented by Chloe Webb and Cynda Williams) do predominate, but a gay lifestyle is not what “Tales of the City” is about.

Life surges through this story abetted by a great phantasmagoria of a boardinghouse set (from designer Victoria Paul) where figures converse on angular, rickety stairways and in a verdant courtyard where Dukakis curiously gardens by night. The singularly moving love affair is reserved for Dukakis’ aging, worldly landlady and her most unlikely suitor, a buttoned-down advertising executive (Donald Moffat), lamentably stuck with a brainless wife (Nina Foch).

The other relationships are metallic affairs typified by a loveless but cheerful young gay (the winning Marcus D’Amico), a cruising gay gynecologist (William Campbell) and a womanizing waiter (Paul Gross) who tills with ease the city’s fields of unattached females.

It’s been said that Maupin’s story is brushed with a touch of magic realism and that’s true. Most of the characters, not the least of which is that shingled boardinghouse, are not what they seem and the mysteries are dramatically unraveled in Wednesday’s final hour.