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.

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