In the late 1970s, best-selling author Eric Jonrosh tried to bring his novel The Spoils of Babylon to television. What began as a 22-hour epic has now been whittled down to six half-hour episodes airing on IFC for the next month.
Wait…what do you mean you’ve never heard of Eric Jonrosh—author-producer-actor-writer-director-raconteur-bon vivant-legend-fabulist? (At least that’s what the title card reads during his introduction of the miniseries’ first episode, “The Foundling.”) Well then, maybe you might know the infamous wordsmith better by his alter ego: Will Ferrell.
The episode opens with Ferrell, one of the miniseries’ executive producers, sitting in a restaurant looking like Orson Welles (in his later years) donning an Indiana Jones fedora. He speaks directly to the often-changing camera, regaling the audience with stories that are supposed to be reminiscent of Alistair Cooke’s Masterpiece Theater introductions but come off more in line with a J. Peterman story from Seinfeld.
And this bombastic, over-the-top intro to The Spoils of Babylon sets the stage for what’s next: A star-studded, campy send-up of the soapy miniseries of yesteryear. We’re talking The Thorn Birds and The Winds of War—if they were produced by the comedy site Funny or Die (which Spoils is).
Created and written by Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont (with Piedmont directing), The Spoils of Babylon’s series-within-a-series motif introduces us to the trials and tribulations of the Morehouse family. We first meet three of the Morehouses in the midst of a family argument…with guns. Shots ring out, and Devon Morehouse (played by “Dirk Snowfield,” aka Tobey Maguire) runs out of the house, bleeding. He jumps into his convertible, and in the cheapest-looking production design, using toy sets and cheesy special effects, he drives to the Morehouse Conglomerated building to tape record his tale of woe. It’s magical.
Devon’s flashback sequence takes us back to West Texas, 1931, where he reveals that he had amnesia as a young boy. (Amnesia is a requisite for any soap opera worth its salt.) He remembers getting picked up on the side of the road by Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins), a down-on-his-luck oilman, and his daughter Cynthia (Kristen Wiig). While Jonas adopts the boy on the spot, we can sense there’s an immediate attraction between Devon and his new sister that isn’t just familial.
One day out in the field, just before their last well strikes black gold, Jonas gives Devon a pocket compass, on which he had a message inscribed. The message, which he asks Devon to read aloud, could fill a binder, but it ends suddenly with “Your fat.” (It was supposed read “father.”) A slightly perturbed Jonas says that the inscriber “should have managed his space better,” illustrating one of the many droll jokes that dot the episode.
The cast plays up the camp by generally playing the material as straight as possible. Maguire is the earnest son/brother, who does his best to resist temptation; Wiig is hysterical as his dim-witted, seductress sister, and Robbins captures the gravitas of any ‘70s TV show patriarch.
From the hilarious opening credit sequence, which introduces us to the faux actors Snowfield, Sir Richard Driftwood (Robbins) and Lauoreighiya Samcake (Wiig), to the Bond-like “Theme from the Spoils of Babylon,” sung by Steve Lawrence, to bits of fur floating in a squirrel stew, the episode is rife with silly, but awesome, background details. There are so many hat tips to pop culture strewn throughout the show’s 22 minutes, borrowing heavily from ‘80s parody movies like Airplane! and Top Secret and briefly from oil-themed films like There Will be Blood and Giant. Many of these gags and references probably won’t be caught if you blink, so careful watching or re-winding is in order. Pay attention to the so-bad-it’s-funny editing, too.
The episode is loosely tied together by a sketches that move the story along. Of course, some of the scenes work better than others—Ferrell is at his blowhard Ron Burgandy best, but some of the exchanges with the younger children and Maguire’s tape recorder interludes fall flat. Maguire and Wiig have good comedic chemistry, whether it’s in a fake-out kissing scene or an over-the-top makeout session filmed in soft-focus. As this first chapter ends, the country is at the brink of World War II and Devon forsakes any chance of carnal relations with his sister to do his patriotic duty.
Some younger audiences might not get all the old-school references, but the acting, the dry (and sometimes plain stupid) humor, combined with cheesy-looking production, all wrapped in a soapy parody, adds up to a lot of timeless fun.