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Waters brings singular strangeness to show

Talking murder with John Waters is hardly shocking. This is the film director who elevated trashiness to high art while tugging the fringes of culture toward the center fold.
/ Source: The Associated Press

“I know people who have murdered people. I have friends who have murdered people.”

John Waters says this with that wry smile of his, the one that in rough company might be called a grin that eats things people shouldn’t eat.

“It’s a terrible thing, and they can never ever get over it. We all have terrible things we’ve done. They didn’t think they were going to do it, either,” Waters says while methodically eating an anchovy-laden salad during a recent interview. “I think that if someone’s done something very terrible they can make a good friend. Because if you’re willing to forgive them for that night, which is something that they cannot forgive themselves for, it’s very bonding.”

Talking murder with John Waters is hardly shocking. This is the film director who elevated trashiness to high art while tugging the fringes of culture toward the center fold.

His most recent effort, hosting Court TV’s first scripted show “‘Til Death Do Us Part” (Mondays at 10 p.m. EDT), seems to personify Waters’ place in culture right now. The show is on mainstream TV, but its satirization of spouse killing is typically Waters weird.

Waters wasn’t always ready for prime time. (And prime time hasn’t always been ready for him.) His 1972 film “Pink Flamingos” is chock full of unspeakable images and was rated X when it was released. Yet, one recent evening, an uncensored version of it was airing on the IFC channel, a station that’s part of many people’s basic-cable plan. And Waters’ 1988 movie “Hairspray,” which features a rotund drag queen in the lead, was seen as campy when it was released. But in recent years “Hairspray” transformed into a hit Broadway show that is so popular it’s being made into a movie again.

Waters’ gift is that he gets away with it all.

As the Groom Reaper on “‘Til Death Do Us Part,” Waters guides us through half-hour dramatic vignettes based on true crimes about married couples who off one another. Hence the recent lunch discussion of murder.

He doesn’t write or direct the show; he’s merely the on-air talent. He likes it that way. “I didn’t have to give up my whole life to do it,” he says.

The absence of his usual in-depth participation clearly shows. The program doesn’t quite hit the marks that one anticipates from the Waters brand.

When he pops up at the wedding scene that starts each show with his arch double entendres and mischievous gleam, the anticipation mounts and the danse macabre begins. But the show that follows offers rushed scenarios, flat characters and obvious twists — all hampered by its half-hour format.

KILLED WITH A LUNCH PAILHere and there are touches of the sort of lampoonery that Waters specializes in: A father, whose only redeeming quality in his wife’s eyes is making the kids their school lunches, bludgeons her with one of the tin pails; the self-help mantras that propelled a woman to lose weight and want to leave her husband are the same ones that motivate that husband to butcher her; a Boy Scout troop’s innocence both saves and then convicts a murderer.

It may be that “‘Til Death” is going for a soap-opera veneer, but that approach usually only works for serials that play continuous catch-up with the same characters each week. This show introduces us to new ones every time.

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The program’s premise is promising. If anyone could can turn it into something singular, it’s Waters, whose fascination with crime goes way back.

“I was a Court TV reporter for MYSELF before there was Court TV,” he says, “because I went to trials on my own.”

This judicial junkie even camped out overnight to take his mother to the Watergate hearings. He says he’s drawn to the drama of it all.

“The only thing you can’t get on Court TV is that you overhear stuff outside of the courtroom and in the elevators. Both sides have to leave the courtroom at the same time as the victims and the relatives and the relatives of the criminals,” he says. “And sometimes they accidentally get on the same elevator.”

A TV show where John Waters snoops around justice-center elevators? I’m in. But that still leaves “‘Til Death Do Us Part” hanging. At this point, it seems Waters’ participation will go no deeper than host.

Waters says the show’s political incorrectness intrigues him. If it were a show about spoofing spousal abuse, he says, no one would go for it. But, somehow, murder is exempt. Simply by being there as the Groom Reaper, Waters says, “I’m enabling you not to feel guilty about enjoying it.”

And that’s the problem. Waters’ best work usually makes viewers feel guilty for enjoying it. Very, very guilty. “’Til Death Do Us Part” doesn’t make us feel guilty enough.