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Life in the big city.

By Coury Turczyn

MARCH 22, 1999:  Now that we're well on our way into the fascinating world of '80s nostalgia (The Wedding Singer, 200 Cigarettes, etc.), '70s nostalgia in the movies is practically history. Bell bottoms, smiley faces, pot? How passé—give us parachute pants, Mercedes Benz logos, and coke! But that doesn't mean that TV can't continue to dwell in the distant past—broadcast and cable execs probably won't discover '80s irony until the mid-'00s. Fortunately, this means the honchos at Showtime thought it would still be marketable to produce More Tales of the City (R), the multi-part sequel to PBS's mini-series Tales of the City (NR).

Based on the novels of Armistead Maupin, the two Tales are a soap opera-like saga set in the '70s about a group of young residents at a San Francisco apartment house run by the eccentric Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis). While the story revolves around the arrival of straight-from-the-sticks Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) into her new bohemian home, it also spans the personal traumas of a huge cast of characters: there's Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb) who considers becoming the kept woman of a famous fashion model; her roommate Michael Tolliver (Marcus D'Amico) who's searching for the perfect man; Mona's boss, the duplicitous Beauchamp Day (Thomas Gibson), who wants to take over the advertising firm from his wife's dying father...If it sounds episodic, it is—originally having been serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle.

When PBS decided to turn it into a mini-series in 1993, it was a bold move. If the individual stories were rather ordinary, the setting wasn't— really, Maupin's Tales record the heyday of San Francisco's gay culture, before the Moral Majority, before AIDS. What's more, PBS didn't shirk from depicting this era, complete with steam baths and discos. Lost in the controversy over men kissing and flashes of nudity was the fact that this was artfully drawn nostalgia in the best sense—using film to recall a time and place that may never exist again, recreating a bit of cultural history well worth remembering. Even better, it was great entertainment, with perfectly cast actors giving life to well-loved characters.

While PBS dropped plans to continue the series, Showtime picked up the torch five years later. While this is good news for Maupin fans, More Tales suffers in comparison to the original series. First, several of the key actors had to be replaced, and their substitutes just aren't as good in the roles. Second, and perhaps more disappointing, is the series' turn into ever-more mawkish soap opera scenarios. In particular, Mary Ann meets the man of her dreams—only he has amnesia...and it has something to do with a mysterious cult of cannibals! While this might have worked in a newspaper serial, it becomes cloying onscreen. Nevertheless, once you watch Tales, you'll find yourself wondering what will happen next in the lives of those characters.


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