Nearly four and a half years after PBS shook America to its skivvies with the deliciously daring, conservative baiting retro soap “Tales of the City,” Showtime picks up where the pubcaster left off with this two night, six part sequel that’s possibly even more pure fun than the original. In lusty old San Francisco, it’s still the ’70s, homosexual men still frequent bathhouses, grandmas continue to toke on doobies and the greatest threat to gay promiscuity isn’t AIDS, but Anita Bryant. “More Tales of the City” brings it all back with eccentric gusto.
It took a while to get this thing off the ground for Armistead Maupin, whose chronicle of life in the City by the Bay began as a daily newspaper serial and spread to a series of novels before selling the original mini to PBS, which, after airing the six-hour project, caved in to political pressure and pulled out of the sequel.
Showtime — recently savior to the disenfranchised in picking upprojects like “Bastard Out of Carolina,” “Thanks of a Grateful Nation” and “Lolita” — then stepped in. Now, when PBS asks the question, “If PBS won’t do it, who will?” we have an answer.
And its a good thing. It would have been a shame if this defiant, outlandish, intelligent, warm, hip, masterfully performed, proudly politically incorrect mini had never been made.
Series, playing over two nights, with three parts of approximately 45-55 minutes apiece airing each evening, returns the luminous Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis to reprise their roles of Mary Ann Singleton and Anna Madrigal, respectively, from the original. Not that you would necessarily recognize either one. Their lives pick up in San Francisco in 1977, six weeks after the first mini ended.
Mary Ann, now slightly less naive in the ways of the Bay Area but still sweet as fructose, continues to look for love in all the wrong places along with her cynical best friend Michael (Paul Hopkins), a gay man also searching for something more than the fleeting thrill of casual humping.
They both find what they’re looking for on a Mexican cruise — Mary Ann with an amnesia victim named Burke (Colin Ferguson), Michael with Dr. Jon Fielding (Bill Campbell, also back from the original), a former lover who had dumped him the year before.
Searching for her own version of bliss is Michael’s roommate Mona (Nina Siemaszko), a wayward child with a taste for pot laced with angel dust. She runs off to Reno to get her head together and winds up answering phones at a whorehouse owned by a woman, Mother Mucca (Jackie Burroughs), she soon learns she is related to.
It’s one of many surprises awaiting Mona, the biggest of which involves her relationship with Mrs. Madrigal (Dukakis), who was once Mr. Madrigal. To say more would spoil an intoxicating surprise.
Meanwhile, wealthy widow Frannie (Diana LeBlanc) discovers that a playhouse for rich old ladies called Pinus, where young houseboys are always ready with a smile and more, is a wondrous cure for her depression.
And anal retentive workaholic Beauchamp Day (Thomas Gibson, reprising his role from “More Tales I”) is trapped in a loveless marriage to Frannie’s daughter DeDe (Barbara Garrick), who is pregnant with twins. But Beauchamp ain’t the daddy, and he knows it, and plots to do something about it.
All of this socially unhinged soap ties together brilliantly in Nicholas Wright’s teleplay, playing with a deliriously offbeat undercurrent of black comedy that’s never too broad. And helmer Pierre Gang gets the most out of his performers, who lend the production just the right touch of deadpan sincerity.
Shining particularly brightly are Linney, who is perched right at the edge of stardom; Dukakis, whose world weary perf is spot on; and Gibson, who shows a broader range than is ever possible on “Chicago Hope” or “Dharma & Greg.”
But it’s really the small touches that make this six parter, which peters out a bit toward the end, truly memorable and commendable. The age we live in makes it positively revelatory to find a project that so casually, and unapologetically, portrays same sex affection and dope smoking as simply part of a larger entertainment fabric. When we see John and Michael passionately kiss, there is nothing gratuitous about it. If we squirm, its only because society has conditioned us to squirm.
Montreal steps in winningly for San Francisco as a production locale on “More Tales,” which is so successful in rekindling the passion and spirit of the era, and the city, that you can’t help but feel the sense of loss in its having disappeared, perhaps forever. Tech credits are exceptional.