Armistead Maupin’s Further Tales of the City is the third of the writer’s “Barbary Lane” novels to be made into a miniseries, and though it is the least of them so far, it is a pleasant enough place to hang out — depending, to be sure, on how you feel about naked gay sex, middle-aged pot-smoking transsexuals and the city of San Francisco, to which metropolis these books and films make up a kind of extended billet-doux. Though the first of the series, set in 1976, aired back in 1993 on PBS (a co-production of American Playhouse and Britain’s Channel 4), its unapologetic, pre-AIDS, anything-goes pansexuality proved a little too hot for the People’s Network, and the current edition, like 1998’s Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City, is a Canadian co-production with Showtime, whose motto is “no limits” and which is also host to the unimpressive Americanization of the gay soap Queer as Folk. Though Further Tales, which is set in 1981, packs in the contemporary signs and signifiers, from colored bandannas to glory holes to the era’s fantasy fad for cops and cowboys, it scants deeper, darker issues — and fair enough: Not all life is disease and politics, and these stories were conceived from the start for a wide constituency, first appearing as a newspaper serial. “Why does everything have to be gay?” wonders a closeted movie star. “Why does it have to be such a big deal?” “Because it is,” answers Mouse, the Tales’ main gay guy, and that is as far as we go; the viewer, of course, with 20 years’ hindsight and memories of Rock Hudson, may fill in the blanks, and perhaps is expected to.
Like most continuing stories, the new series presupposes familiarity with earlier installments, and though a newcomer would not exactly be confused, you’re better off knowing a little; re-introductions are brief, recaps vague. (At four hours, it is shorter by a third than the first two, and feels a little rushed by comparison.) Free spirit Mona Ramsey, formerly central to the proceedings, has decamped off-camera to Seattle, but Mrs. Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), proprietor of 28 Barbary Lane, is still serving up the weed and waxing wise. Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), the Midwest Alice in Wonderland of series one, is now fully habituated to the City by the Bay and is hosting the local afternoon movie — “local afternoon movie” locating the action in the far past as effectively as the references to ABBA, Nancy Reagan, Martha Quinn and the royal wedding — but aspiring to the evening news. Mouse (Paul Hopkins) is working out the whole sex and love thing, but mostly the sex thing. Parker Posey is here, if you look fast, running a sensory-deprivation spa; Joel Grey, being normal for once, has a small part. Mary Kay Place, still cute as a button, gets more to do than previously, as a society columnist in love with the absolute wrong guy. Kid in the Hall Bruce McCulloch is a new face, a gossipy gay priest, a part played strictly, and pretty successfully, for laughs. Linney, whose lately Oscar-nodded star first rose with the original Tales, is reason enough to tune in, is as usual delightful to watch, and, as a special bonus, is naked now and again — though, in an after all appropriate reversal of the norm, most of the nudity, and all the full-frontal stuff, is reserved for the men, including Billy Campbell, so very hetero on Once and Again, and so very not that here.
While less substantial than its predecessors, Further Tales is essentially of a piece with them, indulging in the same Dickensian coincidences and connections, odd familial revelations and melodramatic subplots. The mystery-thriller element, which here occupies too many of the characters too much of the time, is, distressingly, something of a distraction from the normal human affairs that made Tales and More Tales engrossing; then again, most of the major players have already worked out their big issues, revealed their big secret, learned whatever shocking truth fate had waiting. And so a little outrageous outside stimulus is applied. The present run’s big shocker — and a preposterous one it is — is telegraphed by a mile to anyone keeping two eyes on the TV; but a lesser shock, invented by Maupin for the miniseries, is a successful bit of misdirection, and a pleasant one. While a little rain, a very little rain, must and does fall into these lives, Maupin is generous with the happy endings — of the most conventional, traditional sort — even making a happy end from what had been in More Tales a sad one. To mangle the immortal bard: Jack shall have Jill, or Jim, as the case may be/The man shall have his mare again, or his stallion, or whatever/And all shall be well. Maupin’s outlook is ultimately as rosy as the manufactured daylight that floods the soundstaged backyard of the rooming house at 28 Barbary Lane, but it never feels like pandering, and anyway I’m happy they’re happy, these made-up people of old Frisco. We should all end so happy.
All Souls is a new UPN series (from Aaron Spelling, with Twin Peaks/Buddy Faro vet Mark Frost as executive producer) about a creepy old Boston hospital haunted by ghosts and evil spirits, possessing an improbable number of empty basement rooms and disused wings, and staffed by the literary descendants of Doctors Frankenstein and Moreau, classic mad scientists funded by Satan and engaged in perverted experiments each hopes will make his name in the medical journals. Given the terror and suspicion with which many people, and myself in particular, regard hospitals, the medical profession at large and the cutting edge of biological research, this is a natural, if somewhat lily-gilded, alliance: Doctors are scary enough without being actually contracted to the devil, hospitals are famously places people do not leave alive, and the unpleasant side effects of untethered science are there to see in every corner of the modern world. But All Souls does not comment on this situation — the series is insufficiently satirical, I’d say, though it’s really no business of mine — so much as simply exploit it.
Into this heretofore well-functioning mill of pain steps significantly named Dr. Mitchell Grace (the blandly handsome Grayson McCouch), a brilliant first-year resident with a winning bedside manner and a karmic appointment with significantly named nurse Glory St. Clair (Irma P. Hall, as one of those sainted special African-Americans now common to Hollywood fictions — the kind of “good” stereotype the industry points to with witless, if not actually hypocritical, pride). “You didn’t come here by choice,” she tells him, “you were called. Listen to me now, this is a special place . . . The dead have power here” — pretty much giving the game away right at the top.
You can bet that Dr. Grace, if the ratings grant him time, will get to the bottom of things, though never so near to the bottom that the show will have to end. Anyway, the truth about spook series, up to, including, and after The X-Files, is that they’re more effective when they’re most obscure, when you can’t really tell what’s going on: Because when you do get to the bottom of these things, there’s either the devil or the men from space, and in either case, you will have seen them before. (Mark Frost should have remembered from Twin Peaks that knowing who killed Laura Palmer was not nearly as satisfying as not knowing was fascinating.) With the proliferation of sci-fi and horror on the big and small screens over the last three decades, there are no surprises left, only shocks; all that changes are the particulars of the gross-out, and new turns even on that account are few. All Souls offers, for instance, the novel sight of a rat let loose in the body of a living man, but it also trots out the old noodles-change-into-worms gag — as creaky as a mummy’s joints, if never less than revolting. But the series is well-made within the limits of its ambition, and until that point when it shows itself to be critically less than the sum of its parts, it may, like any halfway decent roller coaster, afford a few thrills, a few chills and some moments of real nausea. Have fun.