"Tales of the City" is back on Showtime, but in an ill-advised turn the city in the title may turn out to be Jonestown.
This two-part "Armistead Maupin's Further Tales of the City" is the third in a series of quirky, heavily sexual stories drawn from Maupin novels initially set in pre-AIDS San Francisco of the 1970s. PBS aired the delectably bold first set in 1994, its racy depictions of gays drawing critical kisses, but shrill conservative hisses that caused the public network to withdraw. Showtime then acquired the franchise, airing the appealing but lesser second installment in 1998.
The slide continues tonight with a tale that is exotic even by Maupin standards, one that unwisely tries to be a suspense thriller while awkwardly pumping in the specter of notorious cult leader Jim Jones several years after the mass suicide at his colony in Guyana.
Now barely into the 1980s, home base here is still the funky apartment house of gentle Anna Madrigal, a former man, again played by Olympia Dukakis, who treats her gay and straight tenants with the same tenderness she now lavishes on her gnarled, foulmouthed, goofball of a mom, Mother Mucca (Jackie Burroughs).
One of those tenants remains Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton, whose attempt to become a serious TV reporter is resisted by the station where she works as a costumed host of a daytime movie. Just as she balks at marrying waiter Brian Hawkins (Whip Hubley), and their gay neighbor, Michael Tolliver (Paul Hopkins), resists ending his promiscuity after getting dumped by Dr. Jon Fielding (Billy Campbell).
In addition, Mary Kay Place surfaces as a loopy society columnist looking for her lost poodle in Golden Gate Park, where a mysterious man (Henry Czerny) hangs out.
Familiar here are the warmth, whimsy and easy rhythms of these characters that director Pierre Gang again captures so well, along with a spate of likable performances, most notably by Linney and Hopkins.
Equally familiar, too, in this script adapted by Maupin and James Lecesne, are the nudity and horsing around in bed, and also the frequent hairpin turns. This time, however, the latter are too severe to be safely navigated, and the characters all but run into each other coming and going before converging in an ending that conveniently knots loose ends.
Meanwhile, Jim Jones or not, AIDS is about to pop.
* Part 1 of "Armistead Maupin's Further Tales of the City" can be seen Sunday night at 10, with the remaining four parts airing on consecutive Sundays. The network has rated the miniseries TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17).