TV Review: Tales of the City (1993)


Title Tales of the City
Release Dates: 1993
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

After watching the new Tales of the City miniseries on Netflix, I saw that this original miniseries is also on Netflix and had to rewatch.  As good as the new series is, this original is really a masterpiece of television.  There’s a lot about it I love – the dialogue, the pacing, the way San Francisco is incorporated as a character, the camerawork (I especially enjoy how many scenes are shot through windows), and the music, both the period-specific pop tunes and the original score for the series. The new series, and well, a lot of television misses these deft touches.

I also like how it slowly reveals that in a city where no one seems to have any secrets that everyone has deep secrets indeed.  I like how well they handled a romance between an older couple – Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) and Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat) – something you rarely see depicted on film.  Marcus D’Amico is really the most heartwarming perfomer as Michael Tolliver, and I really loved his strong friendship with Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb). That Michael in the new series doesn’t share any memories of Mona and even changes the story of how he met Mrs. Madrigal is all the more disappointing.

Even though I haven’t watched this in at least 20 years, I was surprised how well I remembered so many scenes.  The big exception is that I forgot the whole thing about D’orothea (Cynda Williams) pretending to be Black and Mona trying to appeal to her with sould food, which is one of the big misteps of this whole series and worth forgetting about.  Otherwise this is a terrific show and if you have Netflix give yourself a treat and watch it.

TV Review: Tales of the City (2019)


Title Tales of the City
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 4
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

25 years ago, my sister introduced me to the PBS miniseries Tales of the City, which proved to be an eye-opening experiencing of seeing the intertwined lives of a group of people in San Francisco in the period of Gay Liberation and Sexual Revolution of the 1970s.  A couple more miniseries were made for a cable channel that I never saw, but I did end up reading the Tales of the City books by Armistead Maupin multiple times.  Maupin began Tales of the City as a newspaper column in 1974 and then compiled the stories into five novels through the 1970s and 1980s.  Maupin tied up the series with an original novel in 1989, but a couple of decades later he returned to the characters with three new novels published between 2007 and 2014.

And now Tales of the City returns to tv with a Netflix miniseries that draws on both the recent novels and the  1993 miniseries, with additional new characters and plots.  The story is set in the present day which creates a big cognitive roadblock for me as a Tales of the City fan.  The characters should have aged 40+ years since 1976, but the actors playing them have only aged 25 years and thus much of their backstories don’t add up.  With a large part of the story focusing on generational differences, we have the original Boomer characters and the new Millenial characters, but Generation X is completely erased (except, of course, that Gen X actors are playing the Boomers).

Leaving that aside, this version of Tales of the City viewed on its own is an excellent work of television.  In additon to the generational conflicts, the show focuses on truth, family, forgiveness, and how gentrification disrupts community and history.  LGBTQ actors are cast to play LGBTQ characters and the new cast brings a greater racial diversity.

Olympia Dukakis returns as Anna Madrigal, one of the great characters of literature and film.  Under threat of blackmail, Anna decides to sell her Barbary Lane apartment building.  A flashback episode to 1966 depicts Anna’s arrival in San Francisco and a shocking secret.  Young Anna is portrayed magnificently by Jen Richards, who is actually a transgender woman unlike Dukakis.

Laura Linney returns as Mary Ann Singleton.  Her character returns to San Francisco after 20 years to attend Anna’s 90th birthday party, and decides to stay when she realizes how much she misses it as her home.  Mary Ann dives into solving the mystery of why Anna is selling Barbary Lane. Initially, her character is off-putting, a pushy and privileged white woman from Connecticut, but over the course of the series she softens back into the Mary Ann we loved.

Murray Bartlett joins the cast as Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, and despite being way too young to play Michael, he does a great job inhabiting the character and has great chemistry with the other actors as if he’d been there all along.  Michael is dealing with a much younger boyfriend Ben (inspired by, but different from a character in the books and played by Charlie Barnett), and the return of an old lover who’d abandoned him, Harrison (Matthew Risch playing a character who as nothing in common with Michael’s former book boyfriends, Jon and Thack).

Paul Gross returns as Brian Hawkins, Mary Ann’s ex-husband, who raised his adoptive daughter as a single father and runs a garden nursery with Michael.  He is looking to get back in the dating game but keeps meeting up with women who remind him of Mary Ann.  He also attempts a relationship with his best friend Wren (played by Michelle Buteau, a really great character inspired by a book character of the same name, who should have had a bigger part).

The new, younger characters are also great.  Ellen Page plays Brian’s adoptive daughter Shawna, who is unaware that she was adopted and resents Mary Ann for leaving her behind (this was definitely NOT a plot in the books).  She’s pansexual and works for a radical cooperative burlesque bar that is central to many scenes of the series. And since Page is playing a character who is the biological child of a character played by Parker Posey, I now need to see Page and Posey together in a movie.

Other Barbary Lane residents include transgender man Jake Rodriguez (Garcia) and his partner Margot Park (May Hong).  Jake is realizing he is now attracted to men, while Margot regrets losing her lesbian identity from before Jake’s transition, leading to tension and eventual breakup.  Jake is a character from the newer books but characterized somewhat differently here, including having him be of Latinx heritage, while Margot is a characer new to the miniseries.

The other residents of Barbary Lane are a twin siblings Jennifer (Ashley Park) and Jonathan (Christopher Larkin) who dedicate their lives to performance art in hopes of becoming successful Instagram influencers.  Unfortunately, most of their plot is cliched Millenial sterotypes, although they are good comic relief.  They also are tied in with another returning character, DeDe Halcyon Day (Barbara Garrick), a wealthy socialite delighted to have young people make use of her mansion for their performance parties.

One frustrating element is that when Anna’s blackmailer is revealed, they are portrayed as a cartoon villain, ruining what I thought had been an intersting, nuanced character up that point.  Barring that, Tales of the City is a touching, funny, and thoughtful story and a  worthy addition to the ouevre.

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 27


A good crop of podcasts this week featuring Parliament and owls, but not a parliament of owls.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Six O’Clock Soundtrack

I always liked tv news music as a child too, particularly the Action News theme.  Here’s the story of how news music is made.

Sound Opinions :: New Wave & Alison Moyet

Another defining musical style of my childhood, New Wave, is examined along with an interview with New Wave musical great Alison Moyet.

Code Switch :: The ‘R-Word’ In The Age Of Trump

An exploration of when it’s appropriate to describe someone or something as racist and why some journalists are hesitant to do so.

All Songs Considered :: George Clinton & The P-Funk All Stars

Parliament Funkadelic are back and as funky as ever.

LeVar Burton Reads :: “The Truth About Owls” by Amal El-Mohtar

A sweet story about a girl from Lebanon who immigrates to England and finds her place through the study of owls and Welsh mythology.

Snap Judgement :: Senior Year Mixtape

The touching and heartbreaking of three students at a San Francisco high school over the course of their senior year.

Hit Parade :: The B-Sides Edition

The first live-audience Hit Parade episode features pub trivia questions about b-sides that became bigger hits than their a-sides and a performance by Ted Leo, “the nicest guy in punk.”

Book Review: We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler


Author: Daniel Handler
TitleWe Are Pirates
Publication Info: New York : Bloomsbury, 2015.
Summary/Review:

This is an “adult” novel written under Handler’s real name instead of his more famous pseudonym, Lemony Snicket.  Set in contemporary San Francisco, the story details the lives of a dysfunctional family living beyond their means in an Embarcadero condo.  The storylines alternate between Phil Needle, a radio producer looking to exploit the legacy of an African American blues musician, and his 14 y.o. daughter Gwen, who has grown disaffected by the upper middle class life and eventually puts together a crew to steal a boat and run amok on the San Francisco Bay (the “pirates” of the title).  Snicket-like touches are there such as the unreliable and mysterious narrator who begins as a guest at the Needles’ party but then locks themselves in the bathroom to begin telling the story of their hosts.  And the story of Gwen and her youthful companions (plus her grandfather with Alzheimer’s) is far more engaging that Phil’s story. Ultimately, this novel felt a bit drab and I ended up finishing reading it more out of courtesy than interest.

Favorite Passages:

Phil Needle wasn’t a good person, in a what-a-good-person-you-are sort of way, but he was good, somehow, surely. He was merciful. He stepped on wounded bees. He did good, and when he did bad it wasn’t his fault. It was a mistake. He was so sorry, behind the bumper sticker, for whatever and everything it was he had done.

Rating: **

Movie Review: 30 For 30: “The Day The Series Stopped” (2014)


Title: 30 for 30: “The Day The Series Stopped”
Release Date: 12 October 2014
Director: Ryan Fleck
Production Co: Electric City Entertainment
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Documentary | Sports
Rating: ***

Review: The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary series takes us back to October 1989 when the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s was interrupted by the Loma Prieta Earthquake.  Archival footage and interviews with players, fans, and sportscasters show how it slowly dawned on the people at Candlestick Park that the shaking and buckling they experienced was in fact the worst earthquake in over 80 years and having devastating effects on the teams’ home cities.  There are some interesting effects in the movie such as rewinding to the time of the earthquake to tell stories from different perspectives such as one Giants’ employee who was climbing a light tower in the outfield at the time of the tremor.  There’s also some chilling discussion of how a reinforcement project recently completed ahead of schedule may have helped prevent a deadly collapse of Candlestick Park.  Then there are surreal moments such Jose Canseco still in his A’s uniform and his elegantly dressed wife pumping gas at the one fueling station that managed to stay open after the quake.  At times this documentary doesn’t seem to know if it’s a sports story or a disasters story, but then again it documents a moment in time when it was uncertain if baseball was not important or if it was a needed distraction to help the communities rebuild.  I think this movie could have been better if the filmmakers focused more on the interviews rather than replaying familiar archival footage, but it’s an interesting glimpse at a moment when the “sports” story became the “news” story.

Book Review: Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin


AuthorArmistead Maupin
TitleMary Ann in Autumn
Narrator: Armistead Maupin
Publication Info: Harper Audio, 2010
ISBN: 9780062007131
Summary/Review:

As a long-time fan of the Tales of the City series, I was surprised that there are not one but two new books in the series I’d missed out on.  This volume follows-up on the first-person narrated Michael Tolliver Lives, but resumes the interlocked stories of several characters told from a third-person omniscient narrator like the original six novels.  The other return to form is the appearance of Mary Ann Singleton, who was the central character of the serialized stories of the 1970s and 1980s.  Mary Ann’s characterization in recent stories has not been flattering in the least, but here she returns to San Francisco for the support of her friend Michael, having left her wealthy husband and learned she has cancer.  In addition, to Mary Ann and Michael, there are stories about Michael’s husband Ben, Michael’s friend/employee Jake, Mary Ann’s estranged daughter Shawna, and the always lovely Anna Madrigal, the landlady from the earlier stories.  There’s even a surprise return of a storyline from the earliest Tales of the City stories.  Themes of the novel include aging, mortality, and second chances.  A nice addition to the series.

Rating: ***1/2

Song of the Week: “Beneath the Brine” by The Family Crest


I generally find myself scornful of over-orchestrated prog rock, but even though “Beneath the Brine” by The Family Crest could be described this way, I am smitten with it.  Perhaps because the orchestration is done so well, or perhaps it’s the strong singing voice of the lead vocalist.  His name is Liam McCormick, so we have two things in common.  Either way, this song should be part of a film soundtrack if it isn’t already.

What’s playing in the soundtrack of your life this week?  Let me know in the comments.

Book Review: A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester


A Crack in the Edge of the World (2005) by Simon Winchester tells the story of the Great Earthquake of San Francisco in 1906 (and much, much more) in a way only Winchester could tell it.  Winchester has become one of my favorite writers simply because he writes about science, history, and travel in an engaging manner.  He also has the James Burke-like talent of making connections among seemingly disparate things.  For example, in the early chapters of this book he connects the website of Wapakoneta, OH and  geologist Tuzo Wilson as well as making California’s Mt.  Diablo a symbol for pretty much everything to come in this book.

According to Winchester, 1906 was a year of seismic activity worldwide, the California earthquake just one of many events.  Before we learn about the earthquake though, Winchester takes us deep into the geologic past.  Winchester then takes a tour across the North American Plate starting in Iceland.  As he travels the continent, Winchester visits the sites of numerous seismic events including such unlikely intraplate locations as Charleston, SC and New Madrid, MO. Finally arriving in California, Winchester takes us to Parkfield a hub of seismic activity and earthquake study.

Winchester prefaces the story of the 1906 quake with a fairly detailed, yet lively, history of San Franciso itself which rises from a wild west boomtown to the greatest city on the west coast.  Finally, he relates the story of the quake itself, filled with first person stories of the people who experienced it.  This includes some celebrities like operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, psychologist William James, writer Jack London, and four-year old Ansel Adams who broke his nose as a result of the earthquake.  Amateur photography also captured the human perspective on the quakes and the ensuing fires.

Winchester also documents the human response to the earthquake.  Scientist throughout the world use rudimentary devices to track the seismic activity (many of them in Jesuit institutions).  Insurance companies tried to weasle out of paying their claims much to national disapproval, even in Congress.  Long-term aftershocks of the earthquake include the rise of Los Angeles as the dominant western city due to its relatively more stable location.  Winchester also theorizes that the belief in the earthquake as divine retribution sparked the rise in Pentecostal churches that still affects public discourse today.  Another unfortunate aftereffect is the use of Angel Island to detain potential immigrants from China, many trying to claim relation to Chinese-Americans already living in the city because all the records were destroyed in the fires.

In an epilogue, Winchester continues his travels to Alaska where the famous pipeline traverses a fault and is susceptible to the viscious earthquakes of the state.  The effects of Alaskan earthquakes can be seen all the way in Yellowstone Park, itself sitting on a volcanic caldera which could blow with disasterous results for the Western States.  Winchester ties this up with the hubris of people building on land prone to seismic activity.

Since I’m commuting with my son and no longer have time to read on the subway, I got this as an audiobook to listen to while performing mundane tasks at work.  It’s narrated by Winchester himself in his charming, academic English accent.  He also amusingly immitates the various accents of the historical figures he’s quoting, such as Caruso’s Italian.  I enjoyed listening to this lively historical and geological work and reccomend it highly.  I’ve previously read Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, The Professor and the Madman, The Meaning of Everything, and The Map That Changed the World.  You can read my reviews of these books at LibraryThing.

Author Winchester, Simon.
Title A crack in the edge of the world [sound recording] : America and the great California earthquake of 1906 / Simon Winchester.
Publication Info. North Kingstown, RI : Sound Library/BBC Audiobooks America, p2005.
Description 10 sound discs (ca. 12 hrs. 36 min.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.