By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 19, 2007
Commercial television has a head-spinning penchant for coming full circle. Shows and formats ballyhooed as "new" turn out to have been standards and staples 50 or 60 years ago.
Case in point: Court TV's " 'Til Death Do Us Part," a revival of the old crime anthology in which real-life cases are dramatized with actors and the only continuing character is a host who handles introductions and conclusions.
"Alfred Hitchcock Presents" was the toniest example of this genre; Court TV doesn't (and couldn't) aim that high. " 'Til Death" is more in a class with such syndicated cheapies as "Racket Squad," which grew out of a series of MGM shorts shown in theaters. On TV, a grim Reed Hadley went to the files and pulled out a case, and about half an hour later viewers had learned again that crime does not pay -- not unless it's turned into TV entertainment, of course.
John Waters, of all people -- the bard of Baltimore, the merchant of mire, the sultan of sleaze, the director of "Pink Flamingos" -- hosts " 'Til Death" and proves a master of the task. With his seedy anchovy mustache and cadaverous eyes, Waters -- looking like a latter-day John Carradine with a touch of Basil Rathbone -- brings a proper impropriety to the occasion, popping up not from behind a desk but wherever the story happens to take him.
In the first of two episodes airing tonight, for instance, he's encountered in the waiting room of a doctor who's made the mistake of marrying a lady far younger than he. The doc thinks he's protected by an ironclad prenuptial agreement signed by both parties, but unfortunately for him, his lawyer, also his best friend, has what might delicately be called carnival knowledge of the wife.
What's common to all the stories is that one member of a marriage kills the other, and the producers try to keep viewers guessing for as long as possible as to who'll whack whom. The second story tonight opens with a bride and groom bursting from the church on their wedding day and heading straight for a hearse -- that Last Limo in which anyone will ride, though it's used at the wedding because the groom runs a funeral parlor.
On its Web site, Court TV calls the series "darkly hilarious." Dark, yes; hilarious, no, though there's an attempt to emulate Hitchcock's macabre wit. The Waters appearances are confined mostly to the opening and close, but he, or his voice, might pop up during the story itself. In "Funeral Parlor Murder," he can be heard complaining, "Why is it that the cops are never around when you need them, but as soon as you murder your wife, they're all over you?" In the first episode, death-by-stabbing is made slightly more explicit than it would be on the broadcast networks; earlier, the suggestion of oral sex is very suggestive indeed. Distinctions between what cable gets away with and what the networks do are getting blurrier all the time; maybe it's become pointless to note what few differences remain. At least Court TV is airing " 'Til Death" in the last hour of prime time -- at 10, when young children are not supposed to be watching. Over on Fox, a graphically gory crime show may well air at 8 p.m. -- even as lead-in to the family-friendly "American Idol," with its young contestants and youthful appeal.
How hard would it be, and how injurious to Fox's precious profits, to flip such shows so that "Idol" aired at 8 and murders were delayed at least until 9? No one seems to care, but we ask anyway.
The series -- created by executive producer Jeff Lieberman -- has that now-familiar canned-in-Canada look, and sure enough, closing credits reveal that it was shot up Toronto way; none of the actors is recognizable, but that's really no impairment, and the show's slightly cheesy look is entirely suitable. "Court TV" has become so tacky and tabloid that cheapness is part of its identity anyway.
" 'Til Death Do Us Part" would be sort of ultimately ordinary, the very definition of a negligible trifle, if Waters weren't lurking around. But he is, Blanche, he is -- giving the show a reason to exist and viewers a reason to watch.
'Til Death Do Us Part (two 30-minute episodes) debuts tonight at 10 on Court TV.