Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" began as serial fiction in the pages of The San Francisco Chronicle in May 1976, and it brought to life characters that Mr. Maupin could see all around him in that free-spirited time and place. Twenty-five years later, the stories' shock value may have waned, but now, as creatures of period fiction, the people living in the apartments at 28 Barbary Lane on Russian Hill in San Francisco may speak to the present day more than ever.
"Further Tales of the City," the third television project based on Mr. Maupin's writings, begins its four-week run tonight at 10 on Showtime and brings the story up to 1981. When the first mini-series appeared on PBS in 1994, gay people were generally invisible on American television. It was pop- culture news seven years ago when Mouse (then played by Marcus D'Amico) and his dream man, Dr. Jon Fielding (Billy Campbell), kissed on screen. On the lips. (Although the first "Tales" won a Peabody Award, broadcast journalism's highest honor, PBS decided not to take on "More Tales of the City," the 1998 sequel. Showtime was happy to step in.)
These days Showtime's "Queer as Folk" (whose time slot "Further Tales" is borrowing for four weeks) has pushed those old limits around the bend and back. Man-to- man sex scenes just this side of pornography abound in that series, which focuses on a nightlife-loving group of gay male friends in Pittsburgh. (Randy Harrison, who plays the teenage hunk Justin on "Queer as Folk," is a "Tales of the City" fan from way back.
When he was 13 or 14, growing up in an Atlanta suburb, his mother gave him the books. "It was one of the first times that I read gay characters in literature," Mr. Harrison, 23, said. "The whole Barbary Lane thing - it gives you such a sense of community when I didn't have one." Keep in mind that Mr. Harrison is talking about the early 90's.) Meanwhile, on the broadcast networks, a bevy of series have gay male neighbors and co-workers, lesbian sisters and ex-wives.
These gay characters still don't seem to touch their dates or partners very much, but at least they're on the air. NBC's "Will and Grace," which has been winning awards right and left, is a sitcom about a gay man and his best friend, a straight woman; of course, Mr. Maupin introduced that premise in his fiction during the Ford administration, when Sonny and Cher were still together and "All in the Family" was No. 1.
And with the freedom of pay cable, "Further Tales" doesn't face the strictures the first television "Tales" did. For better or worse, it has some fairly graphic sex scenes between men and a dash of full frontal male nudity. Some female nudity has been part of the series from the beginning.
"Tales of the City" was first published in book form in 1978, but it took almost a decade for the series to find a large readership. (Mr. Maupin, 56, likes to refer to his career as "a slowly opening flower.")
So by the time the American public discovered "Tales," it seemed to be describing a lost civilization. Mouse and his heterosexual counterpart, Brian, lived in a pre-AIDS paradise for libidinous singles.
In 2001, when we watch Mouse jump from bed to bed, we can't help seeing disaster ahead. But now social history has taken another turn, and young gay men are reportedly engaging in unsafe sex in huge numbers, either for the thrill of courting danger or because they believe AIDS is no longer a threat.
The Barbary Lane crowd couldn't have predicted a sexually transmitted plague that would send hundreds of thousands of young men (and a lot of women and children) to early graves, but they were aware of it earlier than most. The television version of "Further Tales" ends, in 1981, with one character teasing another about having a love bite on his neck. We know better: it's a Kaposi's sarcoma lesion, a sure sign of AIDS.
But "Tales of the City" is not gay fiction, any more than AIDS is a gay disease. In fact, if you want to hear the normally easygoing Mr. Maupin - a Southern gentleman who moved to San Francisco from Raleigh, N.C., 30 years ago - get angry, just suggest that.
"I think especially now that the world has become so democratized in terms of our gender, sexuality and race," he says, "that it's foolish for writers to consign themselves to a literary niche.
"The real triumph of the work was that I succeeded in creating a tapestry large enough to encompass all of humanity," he continued, speaking by telephone from San Francisco. "The fact that I did that from a gay perspective is what makes the work radical, in my eyes."
As he points out, the Barbary Lane tenants and their friends exhibit a mix of sexual attitudes and orientations. Mary Ann (played by Laura Linney, who was pretty much unknown when she first took the role) is a fresh-faced heterosexual from the Midwest. Mouse (now played by Paul Hopkins) is gay, as is Jon (Mr. Campbell, now a heterosexual heartthrob on the ABC series "Once and Again"). Brian Hawkins (Whip Hubley) is straight. Mrs. Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) is enthusiastically heterosexual, although her having been a man certainly makes her eligible for minority group status. Her elderly mother runs a brothel.
DeDe Halcyon (Barbara Garrick) seemed to be straight - she had a fling with the 18-year-old Chinese delivery guy, resulting in two beautiful biracial children, while she was married to Beauchamp (who was played by Thomas Gibson, now of "Dharma and Greg"). Beauchamp was fooling around with men, and after his death (Mr. Maupin points out that the characters who die tend to be "child pornographers and closet cases") DeDe took up with D'Orothea (Francoise Robertson) - a black supermodel who was actually white, but was faking it with melanin supplements - and ran away to Guyana.
"For the most part, I was reflecting the life I saw around me, but the dream of total integration that is shown in `Tales´ is more true now than it was 30 years ago," Mr. Maupin said, offering as an example a recent birthday get-together. He was with a biracial gay couple and a biracial straight couple, among others, at a nightclub that featured Asian drag queens and a predominantly heterosexual audience.
"And I just marveled at the complete irrelevance of all that to our friendship.
I´m very proud of the fact that I was able to imagine that ease somewhat before it happened."
Mr. Maupin's fiction isn't all about sex and utopian relationships. It's filled with deliberately outrageous story lines and plot twists, accented with whatever current events happened to strike his fancy. In "Further Tales," Mary Ann deals with career frustration ("You have a daytime face," her boss at the television station tells her when she expresses interest in moving beyond her role as the host of "Bargain Matinee") and helps dig a grave in the middle of the night for a man whom the maid has just shot. DeDe, who was believed to have died in the mass suicide at Jonestown, turns up alive and well, but she's soon convinced that Jim Jones is also alive, and is nearby and after her children.
Along the way, one character is in danger of committing accidental incest, several watch (and comment on) the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles, and Mouse takes a short trip to Hollywood, where he gets close to a handsome gay movie star after whom he's lusted. This incident, everyone involved acknowledges, is based on Mr. Maupin's long-ago encounters with Rock Hudson. (Joel Grey steals the Hollywood scenes as the star's assistant.)
MR. MAUPIN also enjoys impossibly contrived coincidences.
When Frannie Halcyon (Diana Leblanc), DeDe's mother, feels ill on a cruise, who should the ship's doctor turn out to be but Mouse's old flame Jon Fielding? "My life got a little muddled," Jon explains, "and this was as close as I could find to the merchant marines." Bambi Kanetaka (Sandra Oh), Mary Ann's rival at the television station, turns out to have turned tricks at the Blue Moon Lodge, Mrs. Madrigal's mother's establishment.
The dialogue isn't always clever. But if it's sometimes ditsy, it's probably deceptively so. When Mr. Maupin talks about the themes in his work - "the chief ritual of growing up has to do with finally reinventing yourself in your own image, becoming the person you are, as opposed to the person you're supposed to be" - he's a lot more articulate than most of his characters.
Something has turned "Tales of the City" into an enduring international phenomenon. There are 4.5 million copies of the novels in print in 15 languages, the paperbacks are currently best-sellers in France and devoted fans are busy making up present-day story lines for the characters on the official Web site (www.talesofthecity.com).
Mr. Maupin thinks the lure of his series is its attention to the search for family. "Everybody in `Tales´ is an orphan of one sort or the other," he says.
Terry Anderson, his business partner and onetime companion (he was the inspiration for the character Thack, who turns up in later "Tales" episodes), thinks that Mr. Maupin's sociological prescience is the key.
And he doesn't mean only the series' color- and gender-blind ness.
"Tales" also had lesbian moms and transsexual daughters of sex-industry entrepreneurs and, if not actual Satan worshipers, an Episcopalian cannibal cult, long before Jerry Springer turned them into theme shows.
Ms. Linney, who was not familiar with Mr. Maupin's work before she was cast as Mary Ann, sees another reason for the "Tales" phenomenon. "It just has enormous heart," she says.
"There's such a sense of good will through the entire series. And it deals with people trying to connect with each other, and the foibles and the failings and the good intentions.
And the humor of life, the humor of love and the humor of sex."
Good will? In the season of humiliation as entertainment on "The Weakest Link," "Survivor II" and "Chains of Love"? Now there's an idea that seems beautifully, refreshingly out of date.