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

Aug 29th, 2013

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The classic miniseries is almost old enough to drink legally, but is this new standard-def set worth a double-dip...?

Acorn Media / 321 Minutes / 1993 / Unrated / Street Date: August 27, 2013

Depending on how you look at it, Armistead Maupin's episodic Tales of the City is either a shamelessly ridiculous, super-saccharine soap opera or a pitch-perfect encapsulation of 70s cosmopolitan lifestyles in the greatest city in the world.

No, wait. It's both.

To anyone who's ever spent time in San Francisco, the reverence and playful insight Maupin gleaned in his original published serials are not just unique, they're endlessly appropriate to the spirit of the city. All the pansexual romance, endless drug use and try-anything-once mentalities may seem silly to the uninitiated, but even though everything in his work borders on the hyper-histrionic, it's absolutely dead-on in evoking the sheer freedom of San Francisco. In that one-of-a-kind city by the bay, you can be or aspire to be anything your little heart desires. Modern ethics or old-fashioned methodologies be damned.

Many fans shuddered at the thought of a small-screen adaptation. Perhaps they shouldn't have worried. In this inimitable TV version, Laura Linney is our guide through the mystical world of the 1970s Bay Area, a woman without a clear plan for what she wants to be - all she knows is that she's tired of the Midwestern status quo any-woman she's become, and San Francisco is the perfect elixir for her banal existence. As she gets work, becomes involved in bizarre love triangles and comes to experience the liberation of true freedom, we see the influence San Francisco has on her. As Olympia Dukakis says, "You didn't choose San Francisco - San Francisco chose you."

As Maupin himself says in this 20th Anniversary Edition DVD’s booklet, "The outrage Tales of the City provoked when it aired on PBS in 1994 seems almost quaint these days." And in many ways, that's true. I remember sitting in my high school government class - I grew up outside Sacramento, S.F.'s inland urban cousin - being part of heated debates about grown men kissing each other and lesbians taking off all their clothes.. on public television! There were religious boycotts of PBS, even bomb threats directed at stations that would actually air this piece of pornographic trash. (PBS ended up not airing Tales of the City's two sequels due to potential future uproar - More Tales of the City and Further Tales of the City ended up on Showtime).

Now, of course, one wonders what everybody was so up-in-arms about. If you're going to tell the story of swinging-70s San Francisco, you're going to have to show some racy stuff. I don't know whether Tales is as "quaint" as Maupin insists - the show's rampant nudity alone would be enough to still turn heads on present-day network TV - but the decidedly R-rated feel of the show isn't just wholly appropriate to the story's nature, it's integral to the impact of the narrative. Watch Laura Linney's face when, twenty seconds after meeting Mona Ramsay, Mona completely disrobes in front of her, looking for a new skirt to wear. And what about Mona and her roommate "Mouse" picking which side of the nude beach to camp out on (gay or straight)? These are plot concoctions that scream out for a little sass, some nudity and open-mindedness. Thank God.

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