Monday, August 26, 2013

Tales of the City: 20th Anniversary Edition DVD review

Note: There seems to be a fair amount of misinformation floating about the internet concerning this DVD release. As someone who has owned Tales of the City on VHS and in its previous DVD incarnation (and viewed both many, many times), I can confirm: This is the most complete version of the series I have seen on home video here in the U.S. If you’re already a fanatic like me, and don’t need the introduction to Armistead Maupin’s world, scroll down to the DVD Extras portion of this review for more info. If you’re new to Tales, read on…

Based on the book of the same name, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was originally a daily serial presented over a period of years in the San Francisco Chronicle. Eventually the columns were collected and made in to a series of five books, which Maupin followed with what seemed the final book in 1989 (Sure of You), bringing the total to six and the saga to an end. Not so fast! Maupin restarted the franchise in 2007 with Michael Tolliver Lives, which was followed by Mary Ann in Autumn in 2010. The ninth Tales book, The Days of Anna Madrigal, is set for publication next year, and is said (by Maupin) to be the final book in the series.

But back to the tale that started it all – the one on which this miniseries is based. Set in San Francisco of 1976, it begins as the story of Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), a young, naïve girl from Cleveland who visits San Fran one summer, and after spending a week there, she decides she doesn’t want to return to Ohio. And once you start immersing yourself in San Francisco through Maupin’s prism, you’ll be right there with her.

Soon enough Mary Ann finds a cozy little apartment on Russian Hill at the fictitious 28 Barbary Lane, which is run by cool spinster Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis). Anna enjoys growing pot in her garden, and she’s more than happy to share with her tenants – or her “children”, as she refers to them. When Mary Ann asks Mrs. M if she has any objection to pets, she replies, “My dear, I have no objection to anything.”

Also living at #28 are: Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb), a hippie chick free spirit who works in advertising; Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross), the local lothario with an unapparent heart of gold; Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico), Mona’s gay roommate, who’s based heavily on Maupin himself; and vitamin salesman Norman Neal Williams (the late, but truly awesome Stanley DeSantis)…but the less said about Norman the better - you need to discover his complexities on your own.

The denizens of 28 Barbary Lane are sort of the “have nots” – no money, uncertain futures, problematic relationships and the like. Across town live the “have dollars,” symbolized by the Halcyon family: patriarch Edgar (Donald Moffat), a wealthy businessman, his lush of a wife Frannie (Nina Foch), their society daughter DeDe (Barbara Garrick), and her lecherous husband Beauchamp (Thomas Gibson). While the Halcyons definitely have money, their futures are as uncertain and their relationships as problematic as the kids on Russian Hill.

Also onboard in supporting roles are Billy Campbell, Michael Jeter, Paul Dooley, Ian McKellen, Paul Bartel, Parker Posey, Mary Kay Place, Country Joe McDonald, Rod Steiger, McLean Stevenson, and Karen Black as herself. But I mean, really - McLean Stevenson…woah! In his only scene he harrumphs, “Why is it always The Marriage of goddamn Figaro?” upon being forced to go to the opera. “South Pacific – now there’s a musical!”

Does it sound busy? The graceful tapestry weave of these people’s lives is only one remarkable aspect of the series. Nothing ever seems forced or shoehorned – only natural and right. The maze in which they all travel among one another is a seemingly effortless “six degrees” type of construction – a distinct hallmark of Maupin’s prose.

Maupin has often said a primary influence when writing is Hitchcock, and from the opening visual, Vertigo itself is a guest star – it even begins with the famous swirling musical cue from Hermann’s score. Its structure appears deceptively soap operatic and big chunks of the story are wrapped up in mysteries and secrets. I’m certainly not going to blow any of its many surprises by talking about them here. Suffice it to say, few of the characters are who you think they are by series’ end.

Given the time period and locale, the story naturally features diverse assortments of drug use, sexuality and frank nudity. When it originally aired as part of American Playhouse on PBS (it was a co-production with Britain’s Channel 4), you can imagine the uproar from the conservative public. Protests, picketing and threats ensued – many PBS stations, bowing to pressure, refused to air it, while others played an edited version. (I’m unsure how many aired it uncut.) Despite the controversy, it achieved massive ratings and the plan was to follow with an adaptation of Maupin’s second book, which picks up about 4 months after the first tale ends. PBS caved and four years passed before Showtime stepped up to the plate and agreed to help finance More Tales of the City.

Given how much TV has changed since 1994, Tales seems positively mild by today’s standards, but the ground that was broken by the series should always be recognized. Twin Peaks changed TV for the viewer; Tales of the City, I would posit, changed TV for producers. One wonders if cablers like HBO and Showtime got deeper into the TV series game in part due to the troubles that befell Tales, and the recognition that there was an audience for adult TV fare – stuff that shouldn’t be burdened by network restrictions. Tales was in fact the first major TV project from Alan Poul – you may recognize that name from shows such as Six Feet Under and The Newsroom.

Poul also spearheaded the follow-ups, More Tales (1998) and Further Tales of the City (2001). Both of those series are very good, but from production standpoints, neither quite scales the magical heights of the original. There’s an attention paid to period detail in the first Tales which the sequels somewhat lack. It feels like it was shot in 1976. I’ve actually had to tell people that it wasn’t, despite the obviousness of stuff like Laura Linney being too young to have starred in something lensed in the ‘70s. The time gap between the first two series also led to numerous cast changes in the sequels – although Linney and Dukakis (and a handful of others) stuck with it over the years.

Each intricate relationship in Tales portrays a very different slice of life, but my personal favorite is the clandestine affair that develops between Edgar Halcyon and Mrs. Madrigal. Rarely is such passion between “seasoned” actors/characters shown onscreen, and Moffat and Dukakis do not love one another in ways you might expect - there’s a great whimsy and kindness displayed by the meeting of these two lost souls. It’s likely some of the best acting both actors have done in their entire careers. One scene in particular that stands out is when free-spirited Anna takes stuffy Edgar to the beach and they spy a group of hippies flying a kite. Edgar remarks that it’s something he hasn’t done in years; Anna tells him to hang on. She sprints over to the kids and returns with the kite telling Edgar “We’ve only got ten minutes!” Edgar asks how she struck a deal with them. Cut to the hippies passing around one of Anna’s joints. While it isn’t the most complex scene in the series, it may be one of the most real.

DVD Extras: There are commentary tracks featuring Maupin, Linney, Dukakis, Garrick, and director Alistair Reid on episodes one, three, and six. There’s also 36 minutes worth of rehearsal and behind the scenes location footage. All of this material has been ported over from the previous, now out of print Acorn DVD edition from some years back. Likewise, the 8-page booklet that was present in that set has been reproduced here with some minor alterations.

The cause for celebration here is that, as stated at the top of this piece, this DVD is the most uncut version of Tales ever seen on home video here the States, and to the best of my knowledge, this is as complete and uncut as Tales can possibly be.

There were instances of dubbing on all previous home video versions, and all in episode two: The horribly dubbed-over profanity from Parker Posey’s Connie Bradshaw, when she's in bed with Brian - her two “fucks” - are now intact. Likewise Michael and his buddy’s casual use of the word “dick” was always replaced with “stick” (though not nearly as obviously as Posey’s fucks). Here, the dicks are back - yes the dicks are back. Scream it from the rooftop – the dicks and the fucks are back for the 20th Anniversary!

Now this wasn’t the case on VHS, but on the previous DVD, during Michael and Jon’s roller skating scene (also in episode two), Donna Summer's “Love to Love You Baby” was replaced, but it is now back for the new DVD. Though the back of the set has a disclaimer saying “Due to music rights, this program has been modified for home video presentation,” to my ears all the tunes are in their right places as they should be, and I was unable to find any replacements, anywhere on this set. So really when we talk about a “cut” version of Tales, what we’re really talking about is these little oddities that have plagued episode two over the years – all of which have been rectified for this DVD release.

Also, I believe making their debut on this set are lengthy previously on episode recaps at the top of episodes two through six. I'm sure I've never seen these before, but I could be wrong on that one. (Bear in mind, I never saw any of the PBS broadcasts; I first encountered the show about four months later when the tapes were released.)

The previous Acorn DVD was a three-disc set, whereas this is only two, and the packaging for this set is not as nice or as elaborate as the previous DVD. Some will cry foul that Tales was not given the luxury treatment for its 20th – that the packaging isn’t better, or that new special features weren’t produced. Keep in mind that the home video market is a much different place today than it was ten or even five years ago. Across the board, lavish DVD sets are no longer being produced with the same frequency as they were in days gone by. That the out-of-print Tales got a new DVD release in a dwindling marketplace is good news; that that DVD is the complete, uncut version - just in time to celebrate 20 years - is the best news of all.