Sunday, April 17, 1994

Journal; The Plot Thickens At PBS

Published: Sunday, April 17, 1994

The continuing soap opera of PBS -- will it survive its cable competition, conservative critics, financial woes? -- is hardly the most thrilling of cliffhangers. It's barely more compelling than the middlebrow "Middlemarch," a profusely illustrated Cliffs Notes version of George Eliot, now airing on a public station near you. But with the new revelation that PBS has, in a cloak of darkness, abruptly abandoned its most successful prime-time dramatic series in more than a decade, the plot thickens most mysteriously. Is PBS heading for a disastrous denouement?

The series in question is "Tales of the City," a six-hour adaptation of the first of Armistead Maupin's six novels about life among a cross-section of San Franciscans. When broadcast in January, "Tales" was greeted with critical acclaim and record-breaking audiences for its touching portrait of the bygone 1970's and its wonderful cast headed by Olympia Dukakis and Donald Moffat. Because the show contained a sprinkling of female breasts and profanities, PBS offered a slightly modified alternative version to its stations. But except for three Southern states in which the religious right predictably exploited "Tales" for political ends, the series was not only broadcast without incident but served as an exceptionally potent tool for local station pledge drives.

"Tales" was a cheap hit for PBS; almost all of the $8 million production cost was picked up by Britain's Channel 4, which originated the project. So happy was PBS with the result that it encouraged Lindsay Law, the producer who brought "Tales" to public television as part of his "American Playhouse" series, to pursue a sequel with Channel 4.

But in late March PBS suddenly started sending Mr. Law what he called "weird signals." When he and Mr. Maupin sought reassurances from the network's programming director, Jennifer Lawson, they discovered that "More Tales" was no longer wanted by PBS. Reporters alerted by Mr. Maupin were stonewalled by PBS spokesmen, who would only answer from a script of "talking points."

As the "talking points" have it, the most concrete reasons for PBS's decision to back away from "More Tales" are that it requires too much funding and that public television, unlike vulgar commercial networks, doesn't sink to sequels. Both explanations are bogus. PBS had told Mr. Law from the start that it had earmarked no money for "More Tales," and he had already been pursuing corporate and private sponsors instead. And PBS does air sequels -- witness "Prime Suspect 3."

So what happened between January and March that made PBS run away from its big hit? To this outsider, two events seem significant. The first is the arrival of a new PBS president, Ervin Duggan. The second is a new all-out campaign against "Tales of the City" by Donald Wildmon's American Family Association: with little fanfare in late March, members of Congress were sent a 12-minute bootleg videotape darkly highlighting the series' four-letter words, fleeting nudity, pot-smoking and one prolonged gay kiss.

Mr. Duggan's pre-PBS job was as a Bush Administration appointee, backed by the National Association of Evangelicals, to the Federal Communications Commission, where he pledged his fealty to "decent family values." Is he now acting as a censor to appease the fundamentalism and homophobia of family-values kooks? Or is the retreat from Mr. Maupin's "Tales" -- tales so benign, by the way, that they originally ran as a serial in the mass-circulation San Francisco Chronicle -- just a dumb programming decision by a television novice?

Repeated efforts to get Mr. Duggan or Ms. Lawson to stop hiding behind flacks and explain their actions were to no avail. Congressmen and benefactors with a hand on public broadcasting purse strings may be more successful in smoking them out. Meanwhile, the millions of viewers who delighted in "Tales" because it is the kind of adult American drama they can't find on commercial television -- and who pledged money to support it -- have reason to feel betrayed. At a time when public television's overall viewership is declining sharply and even its preschool monopoly is facing stiff competition from Nickelodeon, PBS can hardly afford a president who recklessly tells both the gifted creators and discerning audience of the most successful prime-time drama in years to get lost.

Thursday, January 13, 1994

Journal; San Francisco Paradise Lost

The New York Times
Frank Rich
Originally published 1-13-1994

So much sex on television, so little time.

Should I watch a perky animated condom leap into a couple's bed? If I did, I could take sides in the new and rancorous debate about whether the Government should produce commercials promoting safe sex.

Maybe I should turn instead to that courtroom where a young lawyer is telling a jury that "a life is more valuable than a penis." If I studied the arguments about "malicious wounding" on Court TV -- hold the photos, please -- perhaps I would finally figure out whom to root for in the latest battle of the us-vs.-them gender wars, the Bobbitt trial.

Then again, I think not.

So I end up surfing channels to San Francisco in the 1970's, where I find a man and a woman in bed. A man and a man in bed. Men kissing men. Women kissing women. Everyone smoking dope and coupling without benefit of wedlock. This is the mini-series "Tales of the City" on PBS, and why, after a hard day of trying to duck the crossfire about condom ads and the Bobbitts, does it come as a relief?

Technically, "Tales of the City" should plunge a viewer right back into today's sexual hostilities. Adapted from the first of the six Armistead Maupin novels about intersecting lives in a small apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane, the six-hour soap opera brings far more explicit bedroom behavior to prime time than any condom ad. It exposes far more flesh than "NYPD Blue." It features feminists and male chauvinist pigs (as the quaint patois once had it) and incipient gay activists. It even has its own severed-penis plot twist.

Yet the series is a tonic. Its opening credits announce tales of "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" from "an era of innocence" -- and it makes good on that seeming contradiction.

True, 1976 was not all innocence. By then, Vietnam, Watergate and "American Graffiti" had come and gone, leaving the impression that American innocence had died at least 15 years earlier. The air was thick with such worldly phenomena as discos, "More Joy of Sex," poppers and Jimmy Carter lusting in his heart.

But an innocence pervades "Tales of the City" just the same. Not of the silly "If You're Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair" variety, but a live-and-let-live innocence that looks like democracy.

The people in Mr. Maupin's San Francisco are hardly perfect but they are tolerant. Women and men listen to one another and, if they battle, do so with well-chosen words, however angry, rather than with attitudes, fists or knives. Gay and straight men share dating tips. Parents and adult children agree to disagree.

Even the unhip, unyoung and unliberal are embraced. More erotic than any of the show's many trysts featuring nude young bodies is the affair between a patrician Republican advertising man of 60-something (played by Donald Moffat) and the 56-year-old Barbary Lane landlady, Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis).

Was life really so simple then, so easy? Perhaps not. As Richard Kramer, who wrote the script of "Tales of the City," explained to me, Mr. Maupin's San Francisco "is a tiny little postage stamp of earth that maybe never existed." But it isn't nostalgic sentimentality to believe in Mr. Maupin's ideal. His American city is an extended, improvised and sometimes contentious American family -- an attainable community, not a utopia -- far more loving than most conventional families, including that couple who stepped right off a wedding cake, John and Lorena.

What happened to Mr. Maupin's characters after the 1970's? The specific answers can be found in his sequels to "Tales of the City," which eventually pick up the trail of a deadly intruder. But the larger answer has to do with a virus of the mind, not body. It is not H.I.V. that decimated the family at 28 Barbary Lane, but ideologues who pollute the air by turning words like "condom" and "Bobbitt" into polarizing battle cries for one rigid and exclusionary version or another of family values or sexual orthodoxy.

Mr. Maupin's San Francisco, meanwhile, remains a paradise lost -- or, as his Anna Madrigal puts it, an Atlantis to which "we know we must return together." Cartoon condoms may save lives, but they can't take us back there from here.

Monday, January 10, 1994

Review/Television; Back to Free-Spirited San Francisco of the 70's

With the six-hour "Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City," public television is doing precisely what it should be doing. This evening through Wednesday at 9 P.M., PBS is broadcasting a first-rate mini-series that commercial television wouldn't touch on a dare. In fact, "Tales of the City" comes to American television only because Channel 4 in Britain decided to produce it, getting some financial input from station KQED in San Francisco and the "American Playhouse" series, one of a handful of PBS entities still capable of showing some courage.

The setting is San Francisco in 1976. Mr. Maupin's characters -- part factual, part fictional -- began appearing that year in his San Francisco Chronicle newspaper columns. They became players in a print soap opera that was later collected into a series of best-selling books. Now, Richard Kramer, one of the senior and most accomplished writers on the series "Thirtysomething," has adapted, with remarkable fidelity, the first of the Maupin books.

Mr. Maupin is gay, and many, though hardly all, of the characters in his stories are gay or bisexual. Using the "I Am a Camera" technique of Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Maupin records what he sees and hears, then puts much of it under a fictional veneer (in this production he can be glimpsed briefly behind a window, pecking away at a typewriter as a scene unfolds). The upshot is a startlingly accurate snapshot of a particular place and time.

Rolling off the rebellious and permissive 1960's, these varied characters are still lurching through a world in which sex and drugs are casually taken for granted. With Vietnam having wound down, they are running out of causes. AIDS has yet to enter the wings. San Francisco, like most major cities but perhaps more so, is a place where young men and women can still think about finding themselves in a world of limitless possibilities. The Dorothy coming into this Oz, centered in a fabulous old apartment house on Russian Hill, is Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), a fresh-faced, intelligent, compassionate innocent from Ohio who quickly realizes that she is not in Cleveland anymore.

The other tenants of 28 Barbary Lane include Michael (Marcus D'Amico), a hopeless romantic forever looking for Mr. Right; Brian (Paul Gross), a tireless stud proving endlessly that he's irresistible to women; and Mona (Chloe Webb), just past 30 and thinking that it's time she had some security. These and the other denizens of Mr. Maupin's world wander separately or together through a world of bathhouses, elegant dinner parties, drag shows and society benefits. There is occasional nudity, lots of pot smoking, and even a scene in which two male lovers kiss quite warmly. If any of that is likely to bother you, stay away.

In fact, the dominating romance of this mini-series involves two people who might be considered, as they say, beyond their prime. Anna Madrigal, a charming bohemian fond of marijuana, and Edgar Halcyon, an old-line wealthy Republican, are played to perfection by Olympia Dukakis and Donald Moffat. She is the landlady, fluttering about like some bemused butterfly, convinced that "we are all citizens of Atlantis in some secret part of ourselves." Does Anna object to pets? "M'dear," she says, unhesitatingly, "I have no objection to anything." But like just about everybody else in these tales, Anna does have a secret, which becomes pretty obvious by midpoint.

On the whole, Mr. Maupin clearly loves his characters, each of whom, he has said, reflects some aspect of himself. The exceptions, seen only in a couple of short scenes, are several wealthy and snobbish homosexuals. One is portrayed by Ian McKellan, who does a wicked John Gielgud turn, imperiously summoning his butler at dessert time with the notification, "Harold, we're ready for the babas."

Cameo performances are scattered throughout the series. The familiar faces include Rod Steiger, Country Joe McDonald, Mary Kay Place, Nina Foch, McLean Stevenson and Paul Dooley. Alastair Reid, the Scottish director ("Traffik"), also throws in several references to Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," which was set in San Francisco. But the series rests squarely on the shoulders of the uniformly superb actors in the major roles. In addition to those mentioned, they are William Campbell, Thomas Gibson, Barbara Garrick and Stanley DeSantis. Far stronger on character than on plot, which too often gets carried away in a swirl of coincidence, Mr. Maupin's tales have been transformed from a good read into uncommonly fine television. American Playhouse Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City PBS, tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 (Channel 13 in New York). Directed by Alastair Reid; written by Richard Kramer, based on a book by Armistead Maupin; director of photography, Walt Lloyd; editor, David Gamble; costume designer, Molly Maginnis; music by John E. Keane; produced by Alan Poul for Propaganda/Working Title Productions for Channel 4 in association with American Playhouse and KQED San Francisco; Richard Kramer, Armistead Maupin, Sigurjon Sighvatsson and Tim Bevan, executive producers. Anna Madrigal . . . Olympia Dukakis Edgar Halcyon . . . Donald Moffat Mona Ramsey . . . Chloe Webb Mary Ann Singleton . . . Laura Linney Michael (Mouse) Tolliver . . . Marcus D'Amico Jon Fielden . . . William Campbell Beauchamp Day . . . Thomas Gibson.

Saturday, January 1, 1994

A Tale of the Seventies

Originally written by Armistead for TV Guide in January 1994.

PBS, famous for such British-made epic dramas as Upstairs, Downstairs; Brideshead Revisited; and The Jewel in the Crown-will broadcast yet another this week Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a sweeping period saga whose literary origins can be traced directly to the vegetable department of a San Francisco supermarket.

Let me backup a little. It was 1974 I'd come to the local Safeway as a reporter for a weekly paper to follow up on a tip I'd received. According to my source, hordes of "swinging singles-as we once so quaintly called them-descended upon the store every Wednesday night in search of romance.

Sure enough, the place was overflowing with dudes in puke shells and eager young women in rhinestone-studded, brushed-denim pantsuits. The veggie section seemed particularly active, so I headed there, full of probing questions: When did this all begin? What's the best pickup line? Why Wednesday night? For some reason, no one would talk me.

I settled on a fictional shopper to explain the phenomenon to my readers. I named her Mary Ann Singleton (as in "single town") and made her a reluctant but hopeful participant in the Safeway mating ritual. After several grim encounters, she meets the man of her dreams by the snow peas-only to discover that he's there with the man of his dreams.

The story was a hit. It struck such a nerve with single women, in fact, that I was asked to submit more episodes, following Ms. Singleton on her various adventures as a new girl in town. When the paper folded five weeks later, the most vocal protests came from readers wondering what had happened to Mary Ann.

Encouraged by this response, I eventually pitched the idea of a daily serial to the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle. To my amazement, they accepted, so in 1976 "Tales of the City" was launched, and I was faced with the daunting prospect of writing 800 words a day.

I brought back Mary Ann, of course, and found her a nice place to live: a rambling old wooden apartment house with a partial view of the bay. Her landlady, Mrs. Madrigal, was a motherly middle-aged free spirit with a cloudy past and a fondness for naming the marijuana plants she grew in her garden.

The other tenants at 28 Barbary Lane were Mona Ramsey, a bright, Brillo-haired cynic learning to lower her expectations; Brian Hawkins, an amiable but amoral lawyer-turned-waiter who picks up women in Laundromats; and Norman Neal Williams an awkward, fortyish outsider par to clip-on ties. Six weeks into the series they were joined by Michael "Mouse" Tolliver-a sentimental young Southerner who is unapologetically gay. His arrival was a source of grave concern at the newspaper. Expecting a backlash from suburban subscribers, my editors held their breath, mumbling dire warnings about "the limits of tolerance."

They were dead wrong. In fact, when Michael met a handsome gynecologist at a roller rink and brought him home to Barbary Lane, suburban housewives actually wrote me to say how much they wanted the romance to succeed.

As the series progressed, my characters took on minds of their own. I was almost as surprised as my readers when Mrs. Madrigal herself, normally such a homebody, embarked on a tender love affair with a most unlikely suitor.

"Tales" succeeded in a way I'd never dreamed. Reading installments aloud became a watercooler ritual, and readers whose newspapers had been mangled by a neighborhood dog or drenched in a downpour wrote to tell me how frantic they'd been to find a replacement.

For a long time I attributed all this madness to local chauvinism, but I was happily mistaken. When I collected "Tales of the City" into a novel of the same name in 1978 (with five more to follow in the eighties), I found people all over the world who could relate to my characters. Fans at book signings in Sydney or Edinburgh or Iowa City would introduce their friends to me as "my Mary Ann" or "my Brian" or "our Mrs. Madrigal." The novels had become a kind of shorthand for explaining the dynamics of their own free-form urban families.

When Warner Bros. took an option on "Tales" in 1979, I celebrated by having a T-shirt made that said "Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture"-a hugely premature act, if ever there was one. Within days studio executives began to let me know that "certain minor adjustments" would be required before the property could be offered to the American public.

Michael Tolliver, for instance, was OK for a campy walk-on but could never be shown in an intimate moment with another man. Furthermore, Mrs. Madrigal's friendly practice of taping joints to her tenants' doors might have been acceptable on the printed page but would not do on the screen. In other words, they wanted my intricate plotlines but not the nonjudgmental spirit that had rendered them interesting in the first place.

I met with similar squeamishness when HBO acquired the property in the early eighties. By then, Reaganism was in full bloom and the onset of the AIDS epidemic had created an ugly backlash in Hollywood against anything regarded as remotely gay. After several excruciating attempt at "updating" the material, "Tales" was eventually shelved. Over the next decade, the property was rejected by every major network and studio in Hollywood I finally resigned myself to the notion that my work would never be translated into film.

Then, in the early '90s, only weeks after I'd ended the series, help arrived from a most unlikely source. Channel 4, the British network that commissioned the films "Howards End" and "The Crying Game," agreed to fully fund a six-hour miniseries. Even more miraculously, the story would be filmed exactly as written, with its loopy seventies spirit intact in an eloquent and poignantly funny script by Richard Kramer of thirtysomething fame. Filming took place last spring in Los Angeles and San Francisco with a remarkable American cast headed by Olympia Dukakis as Mrs. Madrigal. Tales was broadcast in Britain last fall to critical and popular acclaim, prompting PBS's American Playhouse to obtain the U.S. rights.

Looking back on these past two decades of false starts, I realize there was never a better time than the present for "Tales" to reach television. The seventies, after all are back in a big way. Teenagers have embraced the era's garish clothes and music and its live-and-let-live doctrines as if they'd been invented yesterday. And some adults who once trashed the seventies with a vengeance have begun to admit to a growing nostalgia for a time when status wasn't everything and sex wasn't potentially fatal

So, "Tales of the City" once so relentlessly "now," finally found its niche as a costume drama about a simpler time, an extended joy ride into the past.

If you'd like to come along, I'll meet you in the vegetable department.

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