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Tales of the City

Updated on July 22, 2010

Based on the novel by Armistead Maupin, "Tales of the City" is a six episode miniseries that revolves around the residents of an apartment complex in late 70s San Francisco. Starting with Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) coming into town from Cleveland, the story broadens to chronicle not only her exploits but those of her neighbors, co-workers, and others in the city so strange some believe it to be a reincarnation of Atlantis.

Mary Ann, very much a straight edge, finds herself unnerved with the partying lifestyle of San Francisco: the drugs, the one night sex, and of course the gays. However, while apartment hunting she finds a lovely complex on Barbary Lane run by the mysterious Mrs. Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) which feels oddly like home, and she settles in to discover the city.

After establishing Mary Ann at Barbary Lane, the miniseries expands outward to tell the stories of other characters around her. There's Mary Ann's downstairs neighbors, Mona (Chloe Webb) and her gay best friend Micheal (Marcus D'Amico), both of whom are unsure of what to do with their lives. There's Mary Ann's boss Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat), an ad executive secretly dying of kidney failure. There's another neighbor of Mary Ann's, a womanizing straight guy named Brian (Paul Gross). There is Edgar's daughter and son in law, DeDe and Beauchamp Day (Barbara Garrick and Thomas Gibson), a thoroughly unhappy married couple. And there is the very strange man who lives on the roof of the Barbary Lane apartment complex, Norman (Stanley DeSantis), who has many secrets of his own.

With such a large cast of characters and only six episodes to deal with them, their treatments are somewhat unequal. What the miniseries seemed to have tried to do is to have each episode focus heavily on a few characters, and then move on to another set of characters in the next episode. This sometimes means that the episodes appear uneven, with characters popping up and then just as suddenly disappearing. But nearly all of the characters are interesting, so it's not a huge problem. 

Whoever shot this show clearly had an affection for the movie "Vertigo," as there are visual references to it all over the place. This gets a little ridiculous in the last episode, where there is a scene that is nearly identical to the movie, up to and including the same musical cues. It's kind of a neat idea, but when I saw the scene, I started laughing with how blatant it was.

Speaking of the final episode, I found it waaaay too full of twists and reveals. At least one of which I reacted to with complete disbelief, as it seemed completely ridiculous. I suppose they needed to stick to the plot of Maupin's novel, but that didn't stop the twist from being stupid as all hell. I also disliked how there was a reveal that turned an already unlikable character into a loathsome monster, as it seemed both unnecessary and rather tawdry.

However, the show was really good at depicting a time and place very well. Almost all of the characters seemed like actual people, and it was interesting to see their interactions together. I particularly enjoyed Mona and Micheal's chemistry together, and late in the series when the gay Micheal and the straight Brian become friends it leads to some really interesting interactions. And it was interesting to see how Mary Ann evolves from the stick in the mud she starts out as to someone more comfortable in her skin. The characters and the atmosphere are really the reasons to check out this miniseries.

Although it wasn't perfect, this was a very fun and interesting series for me to watch. At only 6 episodes of 45 minutes each, it's not that much of an investment for a whole lot of story with very interesting characters. Check it out if you run into it.


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    • Goldentvmemories profile image


      6 years ago from London.

      I loved the books - and the tv mini-series, it's a shame they stopped at 3 - funding problems apparently. You brought back some great memories for me - thanks. :-)


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