Tales of the City

TV review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
Tales of the City TV Poster Image
Nudity, drugs, quirky charm in classic literary miniseries.

Parents say

age 4+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 4+
Based on 1 review

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

Positive themes include living an authentic life despite disapproval from others. On the other hand, expect homophobia, sexism, racism, classism, and other "isms" that were more prevalent both in 1993 when this miniseries was made, and the 1970s when it was written. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Characters are multifacted and diverse in terms of age, socioeconomic status, gender identify, and sexual orientation. On the other hand, women are treated less-than-respectfully (particularly by men hoping for no-strings casual sex), as are people of color, who are marginalized and rare in a story set in a very racially and ethnically diverse city. 


A small but significant subplot in two episodes concern a man who is sexually exploiting a young girl, and has been making pornographic movies with her. The images are not shown, but it's clearly conveyed that the girl is being sexually abused, and her story is concluded with the death of one of her abusers, yet we don't see the girl again or learn what became of her. A powerful man uses sensitive information to blackmail a woman into having sex with him. 


Sex is referred to very frequently, but aside from some scenes with characters kissing, sometimes in revealing clothes and in bed, most of the physical stuff happens off-screen. Expect same- and opposite-sex kissing, flirting, and casual sex, as well as characters who are fluid in their sexuality. There are many references to casual sex, many period-correct: one-night stands, pickup joints, singles bars, coed bathhouses for anonymous encounters (we see people walking around in towels and then kissing in private rooms before the camera cuts away). A woman's breasts are visible while she's changing clothing. 


Language includes cursing -- "hell," "bitch," "son of a bitch," "s--t," "ass" -- as well as gender-coded language: "whore," "fag hag," a man tells a woman "Get off the rag, bitch," when she doesn't respond to his advances. 


Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters use drugs extensively: one character grows pot in her garden and we see her tending to the plants, smoking joints, giving them as gifts, laying them out for a dinner party on a huge platter like an appetizer. One character snorts cocaine in an extended scene, and acts like it's no big deal and as if another character who won't indulge is naive and sheltered. Characters drink frequently and get sloppy and/or giggly. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Tales of the City is a 1993 dramedy miniseries concerning the lives and loves of a set of characters, gay and straight, connected by a quirky apartment complex. Extremely controversial in its time, the show does contain a lot of sexual content and substance use. Expect same- and opposite-sex kissing, flirting, and casual sex, including vintage phenomenons such as singles bars and bathhouses. A woman's breasts are visible in a non-sexual context. Two subplots contain elements of sexual violence: a creepy man is revealed to be making pornographic movies with the girl he babysits (and we don't see what ultimately happens to the girl), and a woman is blackmailed into sex by a man who has secret information about her. Characters use drugs and alcohol frequently: one character grows pot and offers joints by the piles to her neighbors. A character snorts cocaine and many others drink until they're sloppy and silly. People of color only inhabit a few small roles, and race figures into a strange subplot that may strike modern viewers as very offensive. Language includes insults: "son of a bitch," "whore," "fag-hag," as well as gender-neutral epithets: "hell," "s--t," "ass." 

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What's the story?

Based on the series of novels of the same name by Armistead Maupin (which were originally serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle), TALES OF THE CITY is set in oh-so-groovy 1970s San Francisco, where naive twentysomething Ohioan Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) moves on a whim. In short order, she moves into an unconventional apartment complex and becomes entangled in the lives of her neighbors: mysterious landlady Anna Madrigal (Olivia Dukakis), hippieish Mona (Chloe Webb), wistful romantic Michael (Marcus D'Amico), game man-about-town Brian (Paul Gross). Out of her depth in the big city, can Mary Ann avoid the tragic end her disapproving mother fears for her? 

Is it any good?

So controversial when it first aired in 1993 that PBS was positively deluged with complaints, this early experiment in quality TV is dated now, but still charming. Some moments seem tame to today's audiences -- a scene with two men waking up in bed together caused a media firestorm in 1993 is nothing compared to Looking or Queer As Folk -- while others still have the power to shock: Mona pulls out a vial of cocaine and chops up and then snorts four lines, and matter-of-factly whips off her shirt to change for work, scandalizing both Mary Ann and a modern audience mostly unused to free-range breasts, particularly presented in a non-sexual context. 

There are also some moments in the series that may upset the sensibilities of woke audience members, principally the all-white main cast -- there are two characters of color in the series, but both are marginalized, and one is subject to a plot twist so strange that it almost reads as speculative fiction. But most of the archaic people and places in Tales of the City are interesting relics: Coed bathhouses! Wealthy socialites with opera glasses! Day jobs that pay enough for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco! Karen Black as a crazed fat-farm matron! Younger viewers may have to grab their phones to make sense of retro references like Est, Reverend Jim Jones, and Bill Blass, but all in all, this artifact has worn very well and deserved to be watched -- again, or for the first time. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the role sex plays in these characters' lives and how it compares to the lives of actual people, gay and straight. Does Tales of the City play up the importance of sex for the sake of ratings, or is it striving for realism? Does the subplot about the sexual exploitation of a child read as sympathetic, or as exploitative in itself? 

  • How does Tales of the City's tone compare to that of other series with a focus on characters who are variously gay, straight, and bisexual, and how well does it succeed at portraying their dreams and struggles? Teens: How have depictions of LBBTQ people in the media changed since your parents were born?

  • Does the drug use in this show seem excessive? What about for the period? For now? 

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