Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City began literary life as serialized stories in a newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle. These short, wry, regular installments of gay and straight life in ’70s San Francisco were addictively popular, and their episodic narrative made them ideal for long-form television. Sort of. When PBS presented its version of Tales in January 1994, there was a big political foofaraw over presenting scenes of homosexual affection and dope smoking; though the miniseries garnered strong ratings, plans for filming Maupin’s follow-up collection, More Tales of the City, were scrapped — the stories were seen as a hot potato not worth handling by nervous Nellie public-broadcast execs.

Now Showtime — not dependent on government grants and eager to challenge HBO in attention-grabbing original programming — brings forth six hours of Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City, with much of the original cast, most of the same melancholy romance, more sex, and an utterly different TV-culture context. Yep, I mean post-Ellen.

Once again, we are plunged into the pre-AIDS, disco-driven ’70s, as the tenants of the rooming house at 28 Barbary Lane — overseen by the floridly maternal Mrs. Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) — are caught up in their various pursuits of happiness. Mary Ann (Laura Linney), now a more sophisticated version of the honest Cleveland hick who was our frisky Frisco tour guide in the first Tales, is determined to find her Mr. Right. So is Mouse (Paul Hopkins), her pal and confidant; together, they take a cruise to Mexico, jokingly masquerading as husband and wife, but actually trolling for a cute guy for each of them.

Meanwhile, Mouse’s roommate Mona (Chloe Webb in the PBS series, Nina Siemaszko here) quits her job and, on a lark, takes a bus trip to Reno. At the station, she meets an engaging old crone, Mother Mucca (Jackie Burroughs), who runs a house of prostitution. In one of those perfect coincidences that characterize Maupin’s farcical work, Mucca also holds knowledge of Mona’s true parentage that will turn the young woman’s life upside down.

The other primary subplot involves Mary Ann’s former boss, Beauchamp Day (Dharma & Greg‘s Thomas Gibson), whose wife, DeDe (Barbara Garrick), is pregnant with twins whose father isn’t Beauchamp. Displaying a marvelously mean, slimy side that he keeps hidden on Dharma, Gibson hires a thug to scare DeDe into miscarrying, but the plan explodes in his face — and I mean that cliche literally.

I don’t want to give much more away; like any good soap opera, each of the six episodes of More Tales of the City depends upon serial revelations and mini-cliff-hangers. There’s a fine cameo by Parker Posey as a cheerful Scientologist and a party scene in which The Larry Sanders Show‘s Scott Thompson, Frasier‘s Dan Butler, and Eating Raoul‘s Paul Bartel exchange wickedly catty banter. Director Pierre Gang and screenwriter Nicholas Wright are perhaps too faithful to Maupin’s gay-soufflè prose, which can regularly turn out too soft and collapse with sentimentality. If you’re tuning in for the naughty bits, I direct your attention to the series’ fourth segment, which features a dreamy make-out scene between Mouse and his former lover, Jon (Bill Campbell) — precisely the kind of thing that moved the Georgia legislature to formally condemn the ’94 Tales.

That original production was at once daring and a little boring in its lackadaisical pace. So is this one. But after all the hubbub over Ellen DeGeneres’ quest to portray gay lifestyles in an entertaining way that was a tad less encoded than it is on, say, Xena: Warrior Princess, More Tales looks positively quaint. And this production is dragged down by a subplot about Mary Ann’s new boyfriend, Burke (a perennially poker-faced Colin Ferguson), having amnesia.

The rest of the performances hold this sprawling piece together, though. Like Gibson, Linney displays greater range here — more than she’s been allowed in feature films like Congo; Hopkins’ Mouse is sweet without being cloying; and Dukakis, handed the most difficult transition midway through the story, pulls it off with appropriately tart humor. In fact, that’s Maupin all over: heartiness with tartiness. I wouldn’t want to live in his city all the time, but these rambling six hours capture maudlin romanticism with surprising charm and, occasionally, an uplifting urgency. B-

Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City
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