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"Tales of the City": 20th Anniversary Edition DVD Review

Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City: 20th Anniversary Edition DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (1993)
Series & DVD Details

Director: Alastair Reid / Writers: Richard Kramer (screenplay), Armistead Maupin (novel)

Executive Producers: Richard Kramer, Armistead Maupin, Tim Bevan, Sigurjon Sighvatsson

Regular Cast: Olympia Dukakis (Mrs. Anna Madrigal), Donald Moffat (Edgar Halcyon), Chloe Webb (Margaret Ramsey), Laura Linney (Mary Ann Singleton), Marcus D'Amico (Michael "Mouse" Tolliver), Billy Campbell (Jon Fielden), Thomas Gibson (Beauchamp Day), Paul Gross (Brian Hawkins), Barbara Garrick (DeDe Halcyon Day), Stanley DeSantis (Norman Neal Williams)

Recurring Characters: Cynda Williams (D'orothea Wilson), Nina Foch (Frannie Halcyon), Parker Posey (Connie Bradshaw), Meagen Fay (Binky Gruen), Kevin Sessums (Peter Cipriani), Michael Jeter (Carson Callas), Paul Dooley (Herb Tolliver), Belita Moreno (Alice Tolliver), Paul Bartel (Charles Hillary Lord), Lance Loud (William Devereaux Hill III), Bob Mackie (Richard Evan Hampton), Ian McKellen (Archibald Anson Gidde), Country Joe McDonald (Joaquin), Syd Straw (Laurel), Meadow Sisto (Cheryl Moretti)

Notable Guest Stars: Edie Adams (Ruby Miller), Robert Downey, Sr. (Edgar's Doctor), McLean Stevenson (Booter Manigault), David Brisbin (Lemon Candles), Lou Liberatore (Chuck), Mary Kay Place (Prue Giroux), Lou Cutell (Herb Siegel), Carolyn Lowery (Hillary), Phillip Moon (Lionel Wong), Karen Black (Herself), John Fleck (Vincent), Elise Neal (Spa Instructress), Armistead Maupin (Writer - uncredited), Amanda Fuller (Lexy), Lucille Bliss (Cable Car Lady), Marissa Ribisi (Receptionist), Arsenio "Sonny" Trinidad (Edsel Ford Fong), Stephanie Faracy (Candi Moretti), Janeane Garofalo (Coppola Woman), Sam Moore (Preacher), Rod Steiger (The Bookshop Owner), Mother Love (Motherly Waitress), Don Novello (Priest), Howard Platt (Mr. Wilson)

Running Time: 319 Minutes (6 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated

1.33:1 Fullscreen (Broadcast Ratio), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired; Video Extras Subtitled; Not Closed Captioned
UK Airdates: May 8, 1993 - June 12, 1993 / US Airdates: January 10-12, 1994
Suggested Retail Price: $49.99 / DVD Release Date: August 27, 2013
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s) / Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Previously released as 3-Disc DVD (February 25, 2003)

Buy Tales of the City: 20th Anniversary Edition DVD at Amazon.com

Today, grown-up television is everywhere you look, even on channels you've never heard of and can't believe are in the original programming business. Twenty years ago, things were much different.
HBO was airing just two scripted series and that was about the extent of cable's original adult offerings (excluding the other kind of "adult"). That made "Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City" something of a novelty in 1993-94.

HBO had tried adapting Maupin's celebrated series of San Francisco-set novels into a sitcom back in 1982, but it didn't take, with the subscription channel fearing the books' casual treatment of drugs, sex, and sexual orientation wouldn't fly with audiences. It took the backing of the United Kingdom's Channel 4 to make an American television version of this franchise a reality. The six-episode miniseries aired in the UK from May to June 1993 and came to American airwaves via PBS in January 1994. "Tales" would receive Primetime Emmy nominations for Outstanding Miniseries and writing in a miniseries or special (Richard Kramer) but would have to settle for a Peabody and a then easily won GLAAD Media Award.

Two sequel series were made: 1998's "More Tales of the City", a co-production of Channel 4 and Showtime, and 2001's "Further Tales of the City", a purely Showtime creation. All three incarnations of the series starred Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis and habitual contender Laura Linney.

The 1993 miniseries "Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City" concludes with Cleveland native Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) celebrating Christmas 1976 in San Francisco. The most central romance of "Tales of the City" involves dying ad executive Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat) and Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), a landlady with a secret past.

Linney plays Mary Ann Singleton, a straight-laced and prudish Clevelander who moves to San Francisco in 1976 and is startled by the City by the Bay's loose morals. She finds a "welcome" joint taped to her door the day she moves in to her new place,
which occupies the middle level of an old three-story home at fictional 28 Barbary Lane in the Russian Hill neighborhood. Adultery and homosexuality are all around her and her odd landlady, a Mrs. Anna Madrigal (Dukakis), seems to be one of many transplants harboring secret pasts.

Though many of the characters are just meeting for the first time, every principal is connected in some way. Mary Ann gets a job working as secretary to Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat), a wealthy ad executive who secretly has been given six months to live on failing kidneys. Halcyon begins a relationship with Madrigal, while his co-worker and son-in-law Beauchamp Day (Thomas Gibson, Greg of "Dharma & Greg") takes a liking to Mary Ann. Meanwhile, Mary Ann's coke-snorting, free-spirited neighbor Mona (Sid and Nancy's Chloe Webb) is in an unconventional domestic partnership with Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Marcus D'Amico), a gay Orlando boy who seems to date a new guy every week.

"Tales of the City" is mature, but not terribly intelligent. Characters are fleshed out and versed in literature. Veteran TV scribe Kramer ("thirtysomething", "My So-Called Life") shows evident care for each of the regulars, even those who seem to drift in and out of view. That care can probably be traced back to the first of Maupin's then five books that were first serialized daily in San Francisco newspapers. Maupin writes what he knows. His outsider's perspective of Northern California reflects his move to San Francisco from the Carolinas at age 26. Having come out shortly thereafter, he's familiar with the gay scene. Each of his characters has an age, an occupation, a hometown, and a secret that emerge naturally in the flow of these human interactions and not out of contrived B storylines.

The series' content must have seemed at least a little shocking for American television, and especially PBS, in 1994, the year that "ER" and "Friends" debuted. There's male kissing, occasional profanity, and a good amount of partial nudity. Compared to the shows that air nowadays on Starz, "Tales" seems more than a little quaint. And yet, some PBS affiliates in southern states pixelated nudity or otherwise edited, delayed or pre-empted the show. Protests about the content from lawmakers and conservative groups appeared to be a factor in PBS' officially finance-based decision not to produce a sequel series despite the record ratings the first batch drew.

Ten years after first bringing it to DVD, Acorn Media recently revisited the series in this 20th Anniversary Edition, which lowers the disc count from 3 to 2, drops a couple of minor text screen-based bonus features, and possibly unveils a newly-uncensored soundtrack.

Mary Ann (Laura Linney) takes a look around the home of her friend Connie (Parker Posey), a place she soon moves out of. Shortly after meeting, Jon Fielden (Billy Campbell) and Michael Tolliver (Marcus D'Amico) share a couple's roller skate.

Disc 1

1. Episode 1 (54:03) (Originally aired May 8, 1993 in the UK; January 10, 1994 in the US)
Mary Ann Singleton moves to San Francisco and quickly finds her own place instead of crashing at a liberated friend's (Parker Posey). Mary Ann also finds work as a secretary to Edgar Halcyon.

2. Episode 2 (55:30) (Originally aired May 15, 1993 in the UK; January 10, 1994 in the US)
Mona loses her job for standing up to a client. A frustrated DeDe seduces a Chinese delivery boy and becomes convinced her husband's cheating on her, which he sort of is, with Mary Ann. Michael finds Jon (Billy Campbell), a new love interest, at the roller rink.

3. Episode 3 (52:56) (Originally aired May 22, 1993 in the UK; January 11, 1994 in the US)
Michael embarrasses Jon at a dinner party (hosted quite randomly by a not yet movie star Ian McKellen in a minor role) and then participates in an underwear dancing contest to ease his and Mona's financial woes. DeDe goes to a weight loss spa, where she sheds eight pounds in a week. Mary Ann volunteers at a suicide helpline and meets awkward new rooftop unit tenant, Norman Neal Williams (Stanley DeSantis).

Brian (Paul Gross) and Michael (Marcus D'Amico) go looking for straight women and gay men together in Episode 5. The final episode of "Tales of the City" pays very clear homage to Alfred Hitchcock's San Francisco-set thriller "Vertigo."

Disc 2

4. Episode 4 (52:28) (Originally aired May 29, 1993 in the UK; January 11, 1994 in the US)
Mona contemplates moving out to live with a secret ex (Cynda Williams). Michael's parents, who don't know he's gay, visit. Mary Ann accompanies a girl's trick-or-treating with Norman. DeDe confirms she's pregnant.

5. Episode 5 (51:50) (Originally aired June 5, 1993 in the UK; January 12, 1994 in the US)
Norman investigates Anna's past. Edgar is blackmailed. Brian (Paul Gross) and Michael get stoned and go cruising for action together. Mona is unhappy with her new living arrangement.

6. Episode 6 (52:33) (Originally aired June 12, 1993 in the UK; January 12, 1994 in the US)
Anna schedules a Christmas Eve party for her Barbary Lane family. Mona invites D'orothea's parents to Christmas Eve dinner and gets a surprise. Brian tries to land a date. And Mary Ann tries to figure Norman out in a plot that pays extensive homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) is a motherly figure to tenant Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb). Things aren't so good for married couple DeDe (Barbara Garrick) and Beauchamp Day (Thomas Gibson).

VIDEO and AUDIO

An unsightly presentation makes "Tales of the City" look and feel much older than its twenty years. The DVD sports some of the worst-looking video I've seen in a really long time and not by any obviously deliberate design. Whether the blame lies in poor production methods or insufficient restoration, the results are most unsatisfactory, resembling a low-grade standard definition stream or even a slightly sharper version of a degraded VHS recorded at a faster speed to maximize tape length. The 1.33:1 picture (which actually measures 1.29:1) is burdened with regular grain that's often heavy and some wear and tear. At its very worst, there is the illusion of snow falling in scenes set indoors.
Watching on a 16:9 television reveals lines running down one and sometimes both edges of the squarish frame. Without having seen the original DVD release, I can only speculate that this newer edition's transfers are no better. Part of me suspects they may even be worse, perhaps the product of increased compression.

The 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks aren't plagued with problems as noticeable or remarkable, but they too cannot hide their age. The dialogue remains clear and intelligible throughout, plus yellow English SDH subtitles are included should your eardrums disagree. Though the package mentions that "Due to music rights, this program has been modified for home video presentation", the series still makes prominent use of 1970s 'tunes, fitting at least a few Disco Era songs you recognize into just about every episode. While I couldn't tell you the extent of the alterations and online information was tough to come by, I noticed just one instance (an Episode 5 scene with Brian and Michael listening to dueling tunes) where there seemed to be an obvious substitution. The wealth of surviving licensed songs is enough to probably contribute to the steep $49.99 list price. One good thing about this release that I can't personally confirm is that the soundtrack, reportedly censored with some dubbed-over dialogue in the past, is evidently entirely uncensored here.

Laura Linney and a white-haired Olympia Dukakis rehearse a Tales of the City" scene at a table in the first of Disc 2's nine behind-the-scenes videos. On DVD, every "Tales of the City" episode gets a synopsis and scene index menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Three of the six episodes (1, 3, and 6) are equipped with audio commentary by author Armistead Maupin, British director Alastair Reid, and cast members Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney, and Barbara Garrick.
All were recorded separately back in 1998, save for Reid, who was recorded in 2002. Maupin understandably leads the way, the series having been drawn from his own experiences, and doesn't shy from sharing personal stories in addition to reflecting on the process to adapt his novels. He also touches on casting openly gay actors for that one recurring upper class scene. Reid speaks about the series' creation in detail and defends his belief in "back acting." Linney and co-stars speak of their characters, their memories of the mid-'70s, and their auditions. Regrettably, the commentators spill the season's big mystery in the first episode's track, so first-time viewers should watch the entire series before listening to the commentary. (Information I could have used 24 hours ago!)

Disc 2 adds nine clips of behind-the-scenes footage shot on 8mm by director Reid. Featuring table rehearsals, production B-roll, and a first-person set tour, this material adds up to 36 minutes and 34 seconds. It's kind of intriguing and very uncommon to get for a pre-DVD Era series.

Disc 1 opens with a two-minute promo for other Acorn Media properties, many of them British mystery TV series, and individual ads for "Brideshead Revisited": 30th Anniversary Collection and "Queer as Folk": Complete Collection.

Not carried over from Acorn Media's original DVD are on-screen biographies of the cast and Maupin, who also got a bibliography. Everything else here, including the booklet I'll soon discuss, seems to have been reproduced from that release.

Adapted from the cover art and fitted with the end credits theme, the static 16:9 main menus offer individual and successive playback. Each episode gets its own menu with a synopsis and another with scene selection (each episode is divided into six chapters and the final five open with recaps). Some of the text is a bit funky-looking.

The two discs are packaged in a standard black Eco-Box keepcase, the foil cover artwork being reproduced more vibrantly in a glossy cardboard slipcover. Joining the silver platters is a booklet that folds open to eight pages. It includes an 11-year-old reflection from Maupin, a great longer 2002 article (modestly titled "Production Notes") by U.S. producer Alan Poul, and a nifty guide to San Francisco locations and landmarks featured in the series.

Awkward pentshack tenant Norman Neal Williams (Thomas DeSantis) is awkward. Best friends Mona (Chloe Webb) and Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Marcus D'Amico) reluctantly part as roommates.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

It's kind of tough to believe that "Tales of the City" passed for bold and cutting edge television just twenty years ago. This drama series seems dated today, not merely because it's set in the past or sports woeful picture quality here. Residing between the current spate of daring cable dramas and the relatively hokey fare found on primetime back in the '80s and early '90s, this show remains a fast and easy watch, whose writing, acting, and characters consistently hold your interest.

It's doubtful that Acorn Media's 20th Anniversary Edition improves upon the original DVD release in any greater way than reportedly uncensoring some profanity, but this 2-disc set puts the series back in print and with standard packaging that will save you a couple of keepcases' worth of shelf space. The lowly video is unfortunate and sure to somewhat hinder your enjoyment. Still, it's unlikely the show is revisited again anytime soon and if it didn't look any better now, who's to say it ever can from existing materials?

Buy Tales of the City: 20th Anniversary Edition DVD at Amazon.com

Buy from Amazon.com

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Reviewed September 12, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1993 Channel Four Television Corporation, Working Title/Propaganda Productions and 2013 RLJ Entertainment and Acorn Media.
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