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Urban Anthropology

Public television stayed away from "More Tales of the City," leaving Showtime to pick up the sequel to a series that’s sharp if not Balzac.

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Before I get stuffy about Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City (Sunday and Monday, June 7 and 8; 9 to 11:30 p.m.; Showtime), let’s rehearse the usual pieties. That public television failed to follow up on the astonishing success of the first six hours in 1994 is, of course, a craven scandal. They said they couldn’t get the funding. They said they didn’t do sequels. They neglected to mention the condemnation of the mini-series by the state legislatures of Georgia and Oklahoma, the bomb threat in Chattanooga, or the twelve-minute videotape of “offensive” snippets forwarded by the Reverend Donald Wildmon to every member of Congress along with a covering letter outraged about “nudity, drug use, passionate homosexual kissing and bed scenes of homosexuals doing their thing, profanity, and adultery.” So much for Left Coast sex in the seventies, as serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle and published as a best-selling six-volume shaggy-dog boardinghouse novel by a camp O. Henry. So much, too, for 14 million viewers.

Enter Showtime, as it did in 1996 when Ted Turner didn’t want Anjelica Huston’s Bastard Out of Carolina; as it will this August so we can see Adrian Lyne’s orphaned Lolita. If Chloe Webb and Paul Gross are among the missing, we do get Olympia Dukakis back from the original cast as Anna Madrigal, Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton, Bill Campbell as Dr. Jon Fielding, Barbara Garrick as DeDe Halcyon Day, and Thomas Gibson as Beauchamp Day. Nina Siemaszko and Paul Hopkins are just fine filling in as Mona Ramsey and Michael Tolliver. Swoosie Kurtz shows up as Mona’s mother, to chew some scenery while laying siege to 28 Barbary Lane, and turns out to have been the spoilsport who hired the private detective who fell off the cliff at the end of the first batch of Tales. Jackie Burroughs shows up as Mona’s grandmother, a madam in a Reno, Nevada, brothel. There are also stroll-on cameos by Ed Asner, Brian Bedford, Parker Posey, and the like. They all enjoy themselves to the point of giddiness. It’s a user-friendly production.

Now, then, you’ll remember the big secret in 1994 was Anna Madrigal’s transsexuality. (If you don’t remember, Showtime is rerunning all the old episodes the week before it kicks in with new ones: Folk songs! Fat farms! Kiddie porn! Blackmail! Reefer madness! Harmonicas!) So you’ll be less surprised than Mona is to learn in the first hour Sunday night that she is Anna’s daughter, but that Anna is not her mother. Because most of what Armistead Maupin has going for him -- aside from his matter-of-factness about our smorgasbord of sexualities -- are his Dutch-pretzel plot twists, I’ll go easy on the synopsis. This much can safely be said: If, in the first six hours, we got bath houses, roller rinks, dance contests, macrame, and the Bohemian Grove, in the next six we get cruise ships, Scientology, Peeping Toms, Patty Hearst, Guillain-Barré, sex-toy houseboys, punk-rock hit girls, severed feet, and Jonestown. Somebody will actually be hired by New York Magazine. Everybody, except Whip Hubley, will get laid. The nudity this time around includes not only the usual bare breasts and bottoms but a very brief flash of a male member. I refuse to discuss the kinkiness of the Episcopalians.

This is the stuffy part: As boardinghouse novelists go, Maupin isn’t Balzac. While there were jokes in the first six hours about everything from porcelain ducks to gay nursing homes, the attitude toward politics, even feminism, was a glib weariness. Of the next six hours, maybe ten minutes -- in which Mona and Brian are nostalgic for the bygone days when they went limp at antiwar rallies and make a date to try it again at a forthcoming anti-nuke protest -- take notice of a larger world, as if seventies San Francisco did nothing but surf on its own secretions. Tales of the City became a Tet Offensive in the culture wars only because it was deemed to be so by Wildmon and his Tupelo swamp-fever salesmen (unless, that is, you think it’s politically significant that hormones cause wayward behavior, that gays enjoyed themselves more before they knew about AIDS, and that strangers in a strange city form ad hoc communities that are often more nurturing than the homes they ran away from, in which case you probably think that smoking pot, watching Mary Hartman, and dancing to disco are downright revolutionary). We hadn’t before watched such things being taken for granted on television, and some people decided that we never should. Isn’t this remarkable? But for the Reverend Wildmon, we would have seen the mini-series for what it is -- a stylish, lascivious soap, part Perils of Pauline, part thirtysomething, and a whole lot Beverly Hills 90210.


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