“Looking” Back At “Tales Of The City”

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With the premiere of HBO’s Looking still over a week away, this is the perfect time to remember another TV series about a group of gay (and straight) friends in San Francisco. It was 20 years ago today that Tales Of the City made its American television debut.

Based on the newspaper column–later book series–by Armistead Maupin, Tales centers around a found family living together in a boarding house at 28 Barbary Lane. Tenants include Mary Anne Singleton, a naive girl fresh off the bus from Cleveland, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, a gay emigré from Florida, his best friend Mona Ramsey, a frustrated feminist copywriter, and Brian Hawkins, a leftie lawyer who dropped out and became a waiter. They all live under the eye of enigmatic landlady Anna Madrigal. Tales stars Laura Linney as Mary Anne, Marcus D’Amico as Mouse, Chloe Webb as Mona, Paul Gross as Brian and Olympia Dukakis as Mrs. Madrigal. Also featured are Thomas Gibson as well-heeled heel Beauchamp Day, Billy Campbell as Jon Fielding, Michael’s love interest, and Donald Moffatt as Edgar Halcyon, Mary Anne and Mona’s boss, Beauchamp’s father-in-law and Mrs. Madrigal’s secret lover.

Originating on Britain’s Channel 4, PBS licensed the six-hour miniseries to air on three successive nights as part of its American Playhouse program. Among the first shows in the U.S. to feature openly gay characters and stories, and certainly the first to feature gay sexuality so explicitly, PBS anticipated that Tales might cause controversy. It issued two versions of the program, one with the more explicit material removed and the other uncut. Local stations were free to choose which version they aired and could make additional changes as they desired. My hometown PBS station chose to pixelate Mona’s bare breasts but not any of the men’s bare behinds, a puzzling yet not unwelcome decision.

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Michael and Jon, the morning after

Despite these precautions, the right wing lost its damn mind.

In the years just before Tales aired, there had been several controversies related to gay artists and gay-themed art. Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes, the so-called “NEA Four,” each saw grants that they were awarded by the National Endowment For the Arts revoked in 1990 because of their subject matter. Also in 1990, Dennis Barrie of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati was put on trial on obscenity charges for displaying works by Robert Mapplethorpe. And in 1991 PBS itself had taken heat for airing Tongues Untied, a semi-documentary by Marlon Riggs that explored themes of race and sexuality.

Donald Wildmon, a right-wing religious crank who had been raising hell and raising money on the backs of gay-themed programming for decades, launched protests against the series through his organization, the American Family Association. Under the slogan “It’s time to shut down PBS”, the AFA mailed out still images of men kissing and women baring their breasts to its followers, who in turn contacted the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and their local PBS affiliates. The AFA also sent videotapes with clips from Tales, Tongues Untied and LGBT-interest newsmagazine In the Life, which also aired on PBS, to every member of Congress.

A handful of stations refused to show even the edited version, and one station, WTCI in Chatanooga, Tennessee, pulled Tales an hour before broadcast following a bomb threat. The Georgia State Senate passed a non-binding resolution calling on Georgia PBS stations to not show the program and agree to never show it. The state’s Lieutenant Governor threatened to cut $20 million of PBS state funding, even though he admitted not having watched it. An Oklahoma station aired the edited version and the legislature responded by passing a bill barring the spending of any state money “for program material or content which promotes, encourages or casts in a favorable light homosexuality or any activity violative of state law”.

Despite opponents’ best efforts, Tales was a smashing success. It set ratings records for PBS stations across the country and was nominated for two Emmy Awards. The National Board of Review named Tales the year’s best miniseries, as did GLAAD, and the program won the prestigious Peabody Award.

With such overwhelming success, adapting additional books in the Maupin series seemed like a no-brainer for PBS. However, the president of PBS, a former Bush Sr. appointee to the FCC called Ervin Duggan who assumed the presidency a month before Tales aired, nixed any further PBS involvement. Ostensibly it was because PBS didn’t have the $4 million that Channel Four requested as PBS’s share of the budget. However, Duggan himself had shifted money out of PBS’s drama budget and into children’s and nature programming. He had also been backed for his FCC position by evangelicals and right-wingers. It is more likely that the decision not to go forward with more Tales was out of concern for alienating his political base combined with fear that a conservative Congress could attack PBS through reducing its overall funding. Indeed, Congress did drop its support of American Playhouse from $6.6 million in 1994 to $2.2 million in 1995, with no further subsidy after that.

With PBS out, premium cable channel Showtime stepped in, partnering with Channel 4 to produce More Tales Of the City in 1998 and Further Tales Of the City in 2001. Plans for a fourth production, Babycakes, were announced and Maupin completed a script in 2003 but the project was ultimately shelved. Encouragingly, in a 2013 interview Laura Linney said she’d like to revisit her Mary Ann Singleton character and had been in touch with both Maupin and Producer Alan Poul. So there may still be hope for further sequels.

The original Tales is available on Hulu Plus and our own mother ship Logo occasionally airs the second and third. All three are available on DVD. And of course the books on which they are based, at least the first six that I’ve read (there are now nine total), come highly recommended!