San Francisco is a city that every American should try to get to at least once in their lives. It is rich in history, beautiful architecture, offbeat and funky locals, sports and culture. San Francisco is also a city of choice for those involved in creating TV series. You get the feeling some series are the inspiration of San Francisco itself while other shows were chosen to be set there just because it could be. An overview of the history of TV shows set in San Francisco provides an overview American history itself.
The Barbary Coast
“The Barbary Coast” was one of many of William Shatner’s attempts to recapture a starring role on TV of the magnitude of Capt. Kirk. Like most others, it failed. Commercially. As a portrait of the wide-open San Francisco of the 1870s with its gamblers, miners, sailors, prostitutes and other denizens of the dark, it may not have been historically accurate, but it sure was entertaining.
Well before Karl Malden and Michael Douglas tried to clean up “The Streets of San Francisco” there was “The Lineup.” The SFPD had input into the making of this 1950s TV show set in the City by the Bay. Basing the stories on actual files from the San Francisco Police Dept. with input from the department itself helped to lend “The Lineup” authenticity that fit in quite well with its stark semi-documentary style.
San Francisco International Airport
“San Francisco International Airport” started out as a pilot masquerading as a TV-movie starring Pernell Roberts as airport manager Jim Conrad. About a month later, the first official episode of the TV series aired and Jim Conrad now looked just exactly like Lloyd Bridges. The trials and tribulations associated with running an airport in a city as large as San Francisco had merit, but apparently only as one of a series of TV shows running in a cycle like the NBC Mystery Movie.
Mysteries of Chinatown
What would an overview of memorable TV shows about San Francisco be without one that focuses on Chinatown? “Mysteries of Chinatown” starred an actor named Marvin Miller as a character named Dr. Yat Fu. No, that is not a joke. Yat Fu owned a mystical herb store in Chinatown, but had a second life as an amateur crime investigator. Not that I had to tell you that, right? I mean, don’t all mystical herb store owners in Chinatown solve crime on the side?
If the idea of a guy named Marvin Miller as a Chinatown shopowner/sleuth turns you off, then you can instead get your Chinatown fill of San Francisco TV shows with the few episodes aired during the short run of “Khan.” I personally hold “Khan” in a dark place because it was the show that replaced “Planet of the Apes” when it was canceled. “Khan” is a full-fledged full-time private investigator working out of Chinatown and he was played by Khigh Dhiegh from “Hawaii Five-O.”
For a feel, however accurate, of what San Francisco was like during the Eisenhower era before everything exploded in the 60s, there is the sitcom “The Brothers.” Two brothers own a photography studio, one abrasive and the other withdrawn. Take away the fact that they are brothers and have girlfriends and you could almost have the start of a sitcom about Harvey Milk.
Tales of the City
Eventually all TV shows about San Francisco must eventually face the subject of homosexuality. Rather than doing it through inference and coded behavior, why not attack it head on? “Tales of the City” is actually a series of mini-series based on Armistead Maupin’s stories about gay life in San Francisco. The first–and best–of the “Tales of the City” miniseries was produced in the 1990s and remains to my mind the single most authentic period piece about the 1970s yet made. You don’t have to be gay to enjoy the humor, sadness and outrage of this wonderful TV portrait of America’s most beautiful city.