Can a movie guy who isn't particularly fond of TV help give a cable network a makeover?
Last week, when I talked to cult film director John Waters about his new foray into TV-as the star of an original scripted series that's just begun filming in New York City for Court TV-I couldn't help but remind him that he's gone on the record saying that he pretty much can't stand TV.
"But I like doing TV," he deftly clarified. (He's a favorite of talk show hosts, and has done star turns on the likes of "Homicide" and "The Simpsons.") "I've always loved being on TV."
And he insists that Court TV is one of his faves. Really. "I'm not the kind of person that comes in my house and turns on the TV, but if there's ever a network I watched, it's Court TV. I was addicted to it, certainly, during the Michael Jackson trial"-and judging from the sorts of grotesquely granular details that Waters can volunteer about the court proceedings during Jackopalooza, he has me convinced that he's an honest-to-god Court TV fanboy.
Besides, who can blame Waters for saying yes to this particular TV project? "Til Death Do Us Part," created for Court TV as its first-ever scripted series by low-budget horror director Jeff Lieberman and set to start airing in early 2006, will offer dramatizations of true-life spousal murder cases, drawn largely from court and police transcripts.
The surreal twist is that each episode begins with bliss-a sort of neat reversal of the death-comes-first approach of the late, lamented "Six Feet Under"-as Waters' character, the Groom Reaper, attends the wedding. "And then I look at the camera and say, you know, `In 18 months and 13 days, someone will bludgeon someone to death."' Waters is the show's omniscient narrator, a Rod Serling type, except that unlike Serling, Waters will be a sort of time traveler who's always on hand, in person and in voice-over, to clue viewers in to the hell to come.
For Waters, "This is basically an acting job where I get to wear a lot of black-and, you know, I'm glad I never got a facelift, because I never would have gotten the part," he says, only semi-ironically.
Since the spring, Court TV has been steadily bifurcating into sort of a dual-branded channel, with Court TV News during the day, and then narrative-drama reality shows after 6 p.m (complete with an evening-only tagline: "Court TV: Seriously Entertaining").
Dual-plays like that-a la Nickelodeon begetting Nick at Nite-can be tough to pull off without signature shows that make the two parts of the two-networks-in-one feel distinct. Current nighttime Court TV series like "Forensic Files" and even "Psychic Detectives," though they clearly have loyal audiences, are still subject to Court TV's often suffocating aura.
The problem is that Court TV, as a brand, has always had a certain overarching stridency-a POV that's in the network's DNA, thanks to its roots as the brainchild of Steve Brill, the world's foremost, and most humorless, media scold. That stridency persists in the network's choice of courtroom color commentators. Ask anyone what comes to mind when you mention Court TV, and if they don't say "Michael Jackson" or "Scott Peterson," they'll probably say something like"That scary blond harpie, what's her name-Nancy Grace!"'
With its deliciously perverse take on love and crime, "Til Death Do Us Part" could be a transformative linchpin not only in Court TV's nighttime schedule but in the network's efforts to hip up its image. Sometimes all it takes is one show. (Remember VH1 before "Behind the Music"?)
And, of course, unlike celebrity trials, true-life tales of everyday love-gone-wrong are totally relatable to anyone who's ever been in a bad relationship. (When I talked to Court TV's general manager Marc Juris last week, he joked, "Perhaps because I was recently single when the concept was presented to me, it resonated.")
As it happens, I've worked a bit with Waters. Last year, I was the editorial consultant on an HBO documentary, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' "Thinking XXX," which featured all manner of smarty pants-from Gore Vidal to Nancy Friday-offering their thoughts about the rise of pornography. After interviewing John on camera for an hour or so, we were almost in tears from laughing. He's not only a sound-bite queen, but a born performer. So thanks to Court TV, this total ham gets to spend regular quality time in front of the camera, instead of behind it.
The other upside for Waters? "I'm always uncomfortable at weddings anyway," he tells me, "so now maybe no one will invite me in real life!"
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