Saturday, January 11, 2014

Down on Downton, up on "Tales of the City"

I'm so over Downton Abbey, although that seems not to be a trend. The ratings came in not long after Sunday's premiere of Season 4 and showed that a record 10.2 million people tuned in to be depressed. That's the highest-rated drama premiere in PBS history.

Followers of the show know that Season 3 ended with the abrupt death of Matthew Crawley, not for any logical reason but merely because actor Dan Stevens was tired of the role and wished to move on. I never watch live television, so was able to learn in advance last year of Crawley's premature demise and avoid the 2013 final episode entirely.

I believe in happy endings and avoid gratuitous unhappiness whenever possible.

Stevens was no Gielgud or Olivier either and easily could have been replaced by someone who looked roughly the same and acted in a similarly forgettable manner. Not that Stevens isn't a nice guy, I'm sure.

There have been some symptoms of Dame Maggie Smith withdrawal and I do miss Siobhan Finneran (as the evil lady's maid Sarah O'Brien), but in general I'm moving on.


On the other hand, I've never moved on entirely from Tales of the City, which made its American premiere on PBS 20 years ago this month. The series was based upon novels by Armistead Maupin, still alive and well and writing, living in New Mexico. Some of the stories had been serialized previously in The San Francisco Chronicle, later San Francisco Examiner.

The principal characters were (and remain) Mary Anne Singleton, just off the bus from Cleveland; Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, a gay refugee from Florida; Michael's best friend, Mona Ramsey (all above); Brian Hawkins, attorney turned waiter; and the magnificent Anna Madrigal, portrayed by Olympia Dukakis (left).

The characters come together as a created family in Mrs. Madrigal's boarding house at 28 Barberry Lane in San Francisco.

Set during the era before HIV/AIDS changed everything, it was a generally light-hearted six hours, broadcast in three segments, among the first in the United States to feature openly gay characters and stories in an upbeat way. Naturally, it was produced by Britain's Channel 4.

Of course the series was controversial --- how dare they portray gay people in a positive way!?! And because of that, those of us living in Iowa at the time held our collective breath, waiting to see which way Iowa Public Television --- rarely brave or innovative then or now --- would jump.

As it turned out, Iowa's PBS affiliate decided to air the show, but rather late because of its "adult" content. And with considerable grumbling on the part of management because they'd been forced to make an adult decision.

I was working nights at the time, as I usually did, so dragged the television and VCR out of the closet where they'd been stashed for a couple of years because they interfered with the decor, then watched upon arriving home after midnight.

It was wonderful, and I've watched it again a few times in the years since, although my VCR tapes (purchased when the series was available commercially) now are obsolete and because I had no way to view them were given away a couple of years ago.

If you'd like to read more about Tales, there's a good review of the goings on 20 years ago here.

1 comment:

S Grover said...

Frank, I so agree with you! I thought I was the only person in the world who found Downton Abbey so painfully depressing! Life is hard enough--give me more happy endings!