Armistead Maupin wrote the original Tales of the City in 1976 as a serial in the daily San Francisco Chronicle. At the time it was fresh and engaging, and it caught a certain tone of the life and thought then characterizing San Francisco–a city that, at least on the surface, opened its minds to the gays who were migrating there en masse. Reading it in the newspaper was ten minutes of amusement with each day’s morning coffee. Maupin was certainly au courant on the mores of the gay community at the time and the ways that diverse lives mixed in the city. It was a hoot to read only slightly veiled references to the "scene"–clubs and drugs and freeflowing sex in that more innocent, pre-AIDS period.
The success of the serial led to book publication and then five subsequent sequels, all continuing in much the same tone. PBS aired the first television miniseries based on the book back in 1993; fleshing out the characters from the novel with fine actors such as Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney, and Donald Moffat added nicely to the experience. More Tales of the City arrived as a miniseries in 1998, this go ’round airing on Showtime, probably a more suitable venue than PBS. Showtime is now presenting the third miniseries, Further Tales of the City, presumably as a continuation of the marketing push for the gay audience recently revved up with Queer as Folk.
As with previous editions, Further Tales centers on Anna Madrigal (Dukakis again), an MTF transsexual of Bohemian elegance who rents out apartments in her Russian Hill property to Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), whose origins in Cleveland presumably explain everything; Michael Tolliver (Paul Hopkins), a young gay guy working as a gardener in between his bed-and-baths hopping; and Brian Hawkins, a hunky straight guy who is in love with Mary Ann. All three of these principals share, in varying degrees, a hunger for love, and all have problems of one sort or another achieving the right amorous connection. Tacked on top of that background is a heavily contrived, improbable, and not very amusing plotline involving DeDe Halcyon, lesbian daughter of a socialite, who, with her partner and two kids managed to escape from Jonestown just in time to avoid the massacre.
When Dukakis is on the screen, Further Tales lights up. Whether talking to her flowers as she wanders about her garden in her peignoir, or visiting a soup kitchen, or lighting up a doobie with her mother, Dukakis radiates charm and warmth and humanity, breathing life into the character of Anna Madrigal in a way that none of the other characters achieve. Even Laura Linney, deservedly emerging now as a star long since her appearance on the first series, cannot make Mary Ann appealing, even dressed up as the Phillip Morris page boy. A character that is postulated as dull remains dull.
Paul Hopkins has a flashy smile and male model good looks, but his role only carries him from one sexual escapade to another, requiring him to look a little hungry, a little sheepish, and a lot naked. Perhaps sensing that this material has lost the freshness it had a quarter of a century ago, not to speak of the inventiveness of its earlier installments, Further Tales has been juiced up with acres of nudity, little of it necessary or pertinent to the story, but rather grafted on to provide eye candy for those whose sweet taste runs to perfectly buffed gym bodies in a constant state of pose. There is, perhaps, a touch of a double standard here, with a variety of men displayed in full frontal nudity and engaging in a variety of homosexual acts, while the female nudity is pretty much limited to Linney’s breasts, artistically displayed; the heterosexual sex is more covered up or in the afterglow rather than in the act.
Further effort to charge up the flagging energy is made with the character of Mother Mucca, Anna Madrigal’s aged mother, a hooker and madame from Nevada. Jackie Burroughs takes the role over the top in a red fright wig and with tics and twitches that might have originated in the melodramatics of a silent film; between the writing and the acting, this turns out to be a genuinely unappealing character. Bruce McCulloch comes off as a Nathan Lane wannabe, playing a flamboyant Catholic priest. Gay priests may have raised eyebrows a quarter of a century ago. Now they barely generate a yawn.
Mary Kay Place, a fine actor, is pretty much wasted as society columnist Prue Giroux; there’s little satirical bite to the role. Calling her poodle "Vuitton" isn’t particularly funny, though describing him as "meringue colored" is. An "S&M" relationship, then explained further as "Streisand and Midler," also misses the mark. A reference to Marjorie Morningstar will be lost on most viewers; that’s digging awfully deep for a camp laugh. And it’s hard to see what the character of Cage Tyler, a thinly veiled take on Rock Hudson, is doing in the script at all.
Incisive dialogue might have lifted the proceedings, but Maupin’s screenplay (co-credited with James Lecesne) is rife with platitudes, cliches, and banalities. Even the daytime soapshave gotten beyond lines like "I want to marry her…I’ve never wanted anything so bad." and "My real goal is to be a serious journalist." and "He did what he wanted with me." and "I’m going out on a limb with this and I need you with me." As if geared for an audience with Attention Deficit Disorder, Further Tales is structured with a lot of characters and many short and intercut scenes, but the structure camouflages neither the thinness of the characterizations nor the scarcity of wit. Never fear, though, when the going gets rough, some smooth skin will undoubtedly appear.