Like any worthwhile product with psychedelic properties, it takes a while for The Spoils Of Babylon to kick in. That while is approximately 40 minutes: With the exception of some winding tangents, the first installment of Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele’s miniseries parody is a straight-faced send-up of The Thorn Birds and its ilk. A young drifter (Tobey Maguire) is taken in by a drawling wildcatter (Tim Robbins) and his daughter (Kristen Wiig); daughter and adopted son strike up a forbidden romance; wildcatter strikes it rich, pushing these nouveau riche Rockefellers into a comedic saga spanning the history of 20th-century America.
And then, in the middle of episode two, Maguire fucks a mannequin.
It’s in IFC’s best interest to air the first two installments of The Spoils Of Babylon back-to-back on a single night. The production has an intentionally cheap look, but the onscreen talent—which includes Will Ferrell, Carey Mulligan, and Michael Sheen in addition to Wiig, Maguire, and Robbins—couldn’t have come cheap. It would’ve been a wasted investment to let the first night of the series pass without any mannequin-fucking, presumably alienating an audience coming to The Spoils Of Babylon with a baseline expectation of at least some mannequin-fucking.
But even before that particular, particularly hilarious segment, The Spoils Of Babylon is positioned as a comedy of surreal excess. Ferrell sets the stage for that tone in the character of author/megalomaniac Eric Jonrosh, a self-proclaimed artist with the build, pretensions, and temper of “Frozen Peas”-era Orson Welles. Spoils Of Babylon was to be Jonrosh’s masterpiece, but like the fictional horror show that forms the basis of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the original, 22-hour translation of Jonrosh’s vision went unappreciated. By the time Maguire’s Devon Morehouse is spouting clumsy purple prose like “Time was measured in work—and also clocks and watches—but mostly work,” it’s clear how the “director’s cut” of the miniseries nearly ran the length of a day.
Working under the guise of Jonrosh (who’s also credited, Garth Marenghi-style, as writer, producer, and financier), Piedmont has an eye for genre signifiers and visual tropes; his last project with Steele, Ferrell, and The Spoils Of Babylon producer Adam McKay was 2012’s Spanish-language oddity Casa De Mi Padre. Working with IFC and Funny Or Die rather than ABC circa 1977 necessarily limits the sweep of this series, but the production compensates by making a joke out of shoddy rear projection and HO-scale miniatures substituted for helicopter shots. Other times, Piedmont works within its restraints and turns in beguilingly stylized photography on the level of Wes Anderson.
But reproduction isn’t The Spoils Of Babylon’s comic strong suit, absurdity is. Crummy special effects are cute, but the miniseries finds its voice by bursting Jonrosh’s bubble, illuminating his shortcomings as a filmmaker through mealy mouthed dialogue, incomprehensible blocking, and continuity errors. The show’s first hour is at its funniest during a wartime scene in which Wiig’s position changes wildly each time the camera cuts back to the actress and Robbins—including, at one point, directly in front of Robbins.
As such, these episodes are set clearly in Wiig’s court—her co-stars are merely playing in it. Just as Ferrell was born to play blustering boobs overdue for comeuppance, Wiig is preternaturally inclined toward the rage barely bubbling beneath Cynthia Morehouse. While Maguire wades tentatively into the murky weirdness, Wiig chews through the HomeFill scenery with panache. The joke about her character-within-the-character—the improbably named Lauroeighhiya Samcake—is that she and Jonrosh were married, and the implied frustrations and betrayal in that relationship lend further madness to the Bridesmaids star’s performance.
As Ferrell-as-Jonrosh’s intros unspool, it’s evident there’s enough soap opera in the fictional backstory of The Spoils Of Babylon to make for a suitably sudsy faux “making of” doc. Then again, the last thing the miniseries needs is more amped-up melodrama. For victory to go to The Spoils Of Babylon, the rest of the miniseries will need to rise to mannequin-fucking-freakout levels of insanity—or beyond.
Created by: Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kristen Wiig, Tim Robbins, Carey Mulligan, and Will Ferrell
Debuts: Thursday at 9 p.m. on IFC
Format: Six-part miniseries parody
Two episodes watched for review