'Tales of the City' includes more than mere controversy


January 10, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- "Tales of the City" is controversial, ground-breaking, wise and touching. It's also more fun than many viewers will remember having had while watching public television.

The controversial six-hour miniseries starts tonight at 10 on Maryland Public Television, Channel 22.

The furor over "Tales of the City" is mainly about drugs, homosexuality, frank language and bare breasts, and while there are ample quantities of each, it is justified in virtually all cases by the way the filmmakers use the material to speak larger truths about the human heart.

The miniseries is about the lives and loves of the landlady and residents of an old apartment building in the heart of San Francisco in 1976. The year is important because it is a pre-AIDS sensibility being chronicled.

At times, "Tales" feels like a soap opera -- a '70s-style "Melrose Place." But, ultimately, it goes way beyond the suds of Melrose. It has the courage to talk openly about drugs, and the enlightenment to treat homosexual relationships the same as heterosexual ones.

At the center of what becomes a family in the very best sense of the word is Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal, the landlady. Madrigal is a pot-growing, pot-smoking, literature-quoting eccentric with a tremendous capacity for goodness and a big secret.

We enter Madrigal's world when Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), a twentysomething Mary Tyler Moore type, decides while on a vacation in San Francisco not to return home to Cleveland. We see the world of Madrigal's apartment building at 28 Barbary Lane through Mary Ann's naive, middle-class eyes. We grow with her.

Mary Ann thinks she is just renting an apartment. But before long she's very much a part of Madrigal's family.

And what a family it is. There's Mary Ann's downstairs neighbor, Mona (Chloe Webb), who works at an ad agency, pops pills, snorts coke, lives with a gay man, has a lesbian lover and overall is a pretty terrific person.

It's Webb's breasts, by the way, that viewers will see or not see tonight depending on what part of the country they live in.

Because some PBS stations refused to air "Tales of the City" when they saw moments such as that, PBS sent out an edited version. In it, Webb's breasts are pixilated, meaning that her breasts are blurred on screen so viewers can't see them.

MPT will air the uncut version, but will start the miniseries at 10 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., when it will start in many parts of the country, including WETA in Washington.

Each episode of the miniseries carries a warning which says, "Some material may not be suitable for everyone. Viewer discretion is advised. Leisure suits optional."

The last sentence is indicative of the whimsical, puckish sense of humor that helps make "Tales of the City" special.

Also special is a message the film carries about how TV shapes and can sometimes warp our views of the world.

Two shows from the '70s to think about as you watch "Tales of the City" are the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Three's Company." As you watch this production, see how both of those hit shows let Puritanical and commercial constraints result in viewers being fed pretty lies about the nature of relationships between men and women, men and men, and women and women.

The most special thing of all about "Tales of the City," though, is its overriding, operatic movement. It shows singles looking for love in all the wrong places, as the song says: discos, bars, beaches and supermarkets (mainly in the produce section). And, while the seekers do find sex, they do not find intimacy. Instead, they find real love in the most unexpected places, like the seemingly enchanted courtyard of 28 Barbary Lane.

As Anna Madrigal says, "There are all kinds of marriages. There are lots of things more binding than sex, too, and they last longer."

"Tales of the City" shows us some of those things, and urges us to have the courage to keep on searching for them.

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