A minor disappointment that stood little chance of being a major event, "Armistead Maupin's Further Tales of the City" suggests that the prolific bard of New San Francisco is running low on inspiration -- and that plans for "Still More Tales," "Yet More Tales" and "Yet Still More Further Tales," if there are any, should probably be reconsidered.

In this latest collection, as adapted for television from a Maupin novel, the tales get taller but simultaneously less involving. Indeed there really is but one saving grace: the presence of Laura Linney, nominated for an Academy Award for her magnificent work in "You Can Count on Me," one of the most gratifying and affecting films of the most recent Oscar crop.

Blinded perhaps by loyalty, Linney returns for the third time to a "Tales of the City" miniseries and to the role of Mary Ann Singleton, raw and naive in the first "Tales" (which aired on PBS in 1994), now wiser and more worldly in the latest version, which premieres tonight at 10 on Showtime, the quixotic pay cable network.

Although the third "Tales" collection divides neatly into two 1 1/2-hour installments, Showtime has chosen instead to slice it up into four parts, each airing as a 45- or 47-minute chapter on the four Sundays in May.

This programming ploy interrupts the continuing and definitively provocative drama "Queer as Folk," Showtime's adaptation of a British hit, which will return for its final three episodes (and one repeat) once "Further Tales of the City" has spun itself out.

Showtime executives presumably expect "Queer as Folk" fans to take "Tales" to their bosoms, since both dramas feature prominent homosexual characters. But whereas almost all the characters in "Queer" are gay, the gay population of "Tales" appears to have declined sharply over the course of the three editions.

There are smatterings of male nudity in "Further Tales," and gay couplings, but the miniseries really is more preoccupied with another minority group: old biddies, especially scrungy-looking and, as it happens, irritating ones. It's really about as racy as a canasta tournament, and audiences attuned to the sexual shenanigans and hip, high-gloss production values of "Queer" may think they have traveled back in time.

Of course, that's part of the idea: As of "Further," the "Tales" saga has moved from the go-go '70s into the stop-stop '80s (or were they go-go, too? It's hard to remember when the going stopped): 1981 to be precise, and while the setting is still nominally a crazy-quilt apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane, few of the characters live there.

In fact, plot lines take us out of San Francisco for large chunks of the story, as far north as the outermost reaches of Alaska and as far south as Hollywood, where in the first hour we attend a boys-only pool party at the home of an actor named Cage Tyler (John Robinson), obviously patterned after Rock Hudson.

Longtime lovers Michael Tolliver (Paul Hopkins) and Jon Fielding (Billy Campbell) have broken up, and so Tolliver sets off on a series of sexual conquests designed to make him forget how lonely he is. His partners include, over the course of the four parts, Tyler, plus a cop, a sailor and a cowboy -- leading to the inevitable observation that he's trying to date the Village People.

Fans of Campbell, who also appears weekly on ABC's mewlingly earnest domestic drama "Once and Again," will be displeased to learn that his screen time in "Further Tales" amounts to about 10 minutes, if that. Most of the time he is away at sea, serving as ship's doctor for a cruise line. Campbell was probably able to shoot all his scenes in just a few days.

Hopkins's charm wears thin pretty quickly, since he plays almost everything with the same giddy, good-time grin on his face. Apparently Tolliver holds the title of World's Happiest Homosexual. But then near the end we of course find out he's really been pining for his boyfriend even as he romped from bed to bathhouse to a kind of human beehive where most sexual contact is not only impersonal but anonymous.

Linney's Ms. Singleton embarks on an awfully implausible adventure involving a woman who seems to have survived and fled the Guyana massacre of 1978, now has two adorable children, spent time in a camp for gay Cuban refugees and seems convinced that crackpot cult leader Jim Jones is still alive. At one point Maupin (who wrote the TV adaptation with James Lecesne), generates an unsavory kind of suspense by leading us to believe the two children may have been murdered and buried in Golden Gate Park.

Singleton hosts a not-very-authentic-looking local daytime TV program called "Bargain Matinee," on which she shows old movies and also dispenses handy household hints a{grv} la Martha Stewart. She is required to dress for the part in a demeaning usherette's uniform. Somehow Linney seems as demeaned by this as the character is. She really has graduated to more substantial and less frivolous roles, as anyone who saw "You Can Count on Me" will probably appreciate, and instead of Linney's lifting "Further Tales" to a higher level, it tends to drag her down to a lower one.

Meanwhile, little old ladies are falling out of the woodwork, the most obnoxious and unwelcome being Jackie Burroughs as the 90-year-old mother, or so she claims, of Mrs. Madrigal, the all-knowing, tea-pushing matriarch played by an increasingly smug and annoying Olympia Dukakis. Madrigal's secret, revealed in the first miniseries, was that she used to be a man. It turns out her mother has a secret, too, one involving John McMartin as Royal Reichenbach (!), a former flame.

There's another cranky old battle-ax, this one living in a mansion, falling out of bed and fretting over her missing daughter. And when Singleton follows the Cuban lesbian on a cruise to Alaska, yet another old lady enters the story line to little useful effect.

"Charming eccentrics are a tradition in San Francisco," someone observes. Yes, but where the heck are they? Characters meant to be quirky and wacky more often come across as abrasive and imbecilic, like the daft gossip columnist played by Mary Kay Place. This blithering idiot spends four days in the park looking for her unusually ugly poodle. Joel Grey appears very very briefly as a dancer living in Los Angeles. Parker Posey is buried way down in the cast as someone named Connie Bradshaw Fetzner.

To be sure, Maupin has some fun with his roguish gallery, and the way he manages to bring them together and tie up their tales has a certain cleverness to it. Among the comedy set pieces is one in which a publicity-minded priest (Bruce McCulloch, formerly of "Boys in the Hall") ends up pinch-hitting for Singleton on her TV show, and that requires him to do a commercial for organic tampons.

Linney is topless near the beginning of the story and, in this state as in all others, she's a beautiful subject for the camera as well as a superb actress. But "Further Tales" is not an environment conducive to superbness. It's poky and repetitious and sometimes cringe-inducing in its ludicrousness. Maupin's bottomless font of fancy appears to have a bottom after all, and this show hits it, over and over again.

Laura Linney makes the most of a demeaning role in the Showtime series.Paul Hopkins, below and with Billy Campbell, above, is his peppy self; Jackie Burroughs and Olympia Dukakis, far right, have something peculiar up their sleeves.