Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Tales of the City" DVD Liner Notes

THE OUTRAGE "Tales of the City" provoked when it aired on PBS in 1994 seems almost quaint these days. Apoplectic over the sight of two men smooching in a convertible and the pot smoke wafting through 28 Barbary Lane - lawmakers in Georgia, Oklahoma, and South Carolina passed resolutions fiercely condemning the miniseries. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, there was even a bomb threat that emptied the local PBS affiliate the first night the show aired. The Reverend Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association sent members of Congress a 12-minute bootleg videotape featuring what he regarded as the dirty bits of "Tales of the City". Since this included a shot of Norman Neal Williams (Stanley DeSantis) scratching himself in Jockey shorts, the less said about the Reverend's thought processes the better. I do want to thank him for the noise he made, for without it - and the subsequent lurid reporting by "Entertainment Tonight" - my life's work might never have attracted such a widespread audience.

Contrary to right-wing claims, "Tales of the City" was not funded by "taxpayer dollars." It was entirely the product of Britain's innovative Channel Four and the determined efforts Working Title Films and Propaganda Films. PBS acquired it the way it acquires many British programs cheaply and without risk - only to receive unprecedented ratings, critical raves, and a Peabody Award. So it was all the more galling when the network caved in to conservative pressure and reneged on plans to broadcast "More Tales of the City". I suspect they regret that now, if only because of the small-screen revolution that followed. "Tales of the City" forever changed the landscape of television, paving the way for the domestic lesbians of "Ellen", the straight girl/gay boy antics of "Will & Grace", the unapologetic promiscuity of "Queer as Folk", and the omni-sexual, multi-generational humanism of "Six Feet Under". PBS left the party just as it was getting interesting.

Frankly, I'm used to this sort of nonsense. Back in 1976, when "Tales of the City" began life as a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, I often fought with editors who underestimated the tolerance and intelligence of their readers. To make my point, I took a brief break after the first year; 40,000 San Franciscans wrote to ask what the hell had happened to Mrs. Madrigal and her tenants. Three years later, when Warner Brothers bought the rights to the first of the six Tales novels. I learned what nervous nellies Hollywood executives could be. "Love that gay gynecologist," one guy told me with a straight face. "but I think he should turn out to be a serial killer."

The culture has grown up a lot since then. Freed from the burden of manufactured hysteria, "Tales of the City" can now be appreciated as the benign fable it has always been, a story about people being kind to one another, even under the oddest of circumstances. Alastair Reid's stunningly atmospheric production has emerged as a sort of "American Graffiti" for television: a showcase for a number of "unknown" actors who went on to achieve considerable fame. It's rare that such talent converges for a single project, and I'm grateful to everyone, on both sides of the camera, who made the miracle happen.

Armistead Maupin
San Francisco, August 2002

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