‘Tales of the City’ — another template for today’s prestige TV

talesofthecity1Young critics who believe that the notion of quality, non-commercial TV began with the launch of “The Sopranos” on HBO in 1999 need to check out the DVD reissue of “Tales of the City” that was released by Acorn Video last year.

The six-part 1993 adaptation of the 1978 Armistead Maupin novel was a co-production of PBS and Channel 4 in England.

The series startled viewers with a much franker treatment of sex — straight and gay — than was then permissible on commerical broadcast television.

The fact that Maupin’s story could be told frankly, without built-in breaks for ads, gave it a dramatic momentum that wasn’t possible in a show produced for CBS or NBC.

Maupin’s book was the first in a series of novels set in San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s, charting the social and sexual changes in the city during that turbulent period. “Tales of the City” began life as a fictional serial in The San Francisco Chronicle. The week-by-week story was first collected in book form in 1978; the adventures of the characters continued in six subsequent books.

“Tales of the City” follows a naive Midwestern newcomer to San Francisco — Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) — who finally connects with the sexual revolution of the 1970s when she moves into the funky apartment building of earth mother Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis).

Readers at the time the book came out saw parallels between Mary Ann and the Mary Richards character that Mary Tyler Moore played on her 1970s-defining sitcom. Both were “nice” single women who were open to the changes all around them and who made offbeat new friends.

The mix of characters at 28 Barbary Lane included a post-hippie woman, Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb) and Mary Ann’s first gay friend, Michael Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico), who gave Maupin a talesofthecity4chance to explore the exploding San Francisco gay scene of which he was a part.

“Tales of the City” mixes soap opera, farce, and nostalgia in its look back. Maupin provided the producers of the series with a compulsively addictive plot that made the series one of the biggest hits in PBS history (sadly, the backlash from the religious right was so intense that the sequels moved on to Showtime).

The impact of this show — combined with the PBS airing of the terrific British import “Prime Suspect” — laid the ground work for the revolution HBO would instigate at the end of the decade.

Joe Meyers