IFC presents its latest miniseries, The Spoils Before Dying, in a three-night, six-episode run this week. The second installment of the campy Spoils franchise, once again written by Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele and produced by Funny or Die, brings back a number of familiar faces from last year’s The Spoils of Babylon, but in a completely different setting and storyline. Gone are the trials are tribulations of the Morehouse oil family; instead, the audience is transported to the seedy underbelly of the 1960s L.A. jazz scene. What remains the same are a few cheesy, cheap looking sets (that still probably cost a fortune) and sublimely ham-tastic performances from some of the biggest names in comedy.
The show-within-a-show motif is once again introduced by writer-director-bon vivant Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell), who frankly looks a little worse for the wear from last year. Jonrosh is a ringer for Orson Welles’ in his later years, when Welles was shilling Paul Masson’s finest wines. In the first episodes, “Murder in B Flat” and “Blues for Barnaby” (two half-hour episodes air back-to-back each night starting Wednesday), Jonrosh practically harasses the waitress for more vino and stuffs his face with food during the intros. Jonrosh is fantastically bombastic, and his pretentiousness and his braggadocio are highly entertaining. He talks about the “filmitization” of the best-selling novel, and how he was influential in creating the “post-postmodern French neo-fakism” genre.
The grainy credits roll over the opening scene, and you’d be wise to read them or miss a number of jokes including that Spoils Before Dying received a “mid-range grant from The Swedish Cinema Board” and additional funding from the “Cartel de Colombia”; or onscreen credits for the “metaphysical consultant” and a Pillex Drugs shoutout for supplying on-set pharmaceuticals.
The first episode introduces us to the main players: the gravelly voiced jazz piano player Rock Banyon (Michael K. Williams) as he performs with his sometime lover, the Topanga Songbird aka Fresno Foxglove (Maya Rudolph). Rudolph channels her inner chanteuse and surprisingly sings the melancholy title song straightforwardly. But when the set’s over, Banyon’s British manager Alistair St. Barnaby-Bixby-Jones (a delightfully over-the-top Haley Joel Osment, who stole plenty of scenes in Spoils of Babylon) pesters him to do a jazz with strings album, while Fresno, who’s obviously being shifty and nervous, tells Banyon she has to split for a “big money gig, ya dig?”
A few hours later, the police arrive at Rock’s apartment and tell him that Fresno and scientist Wilber Stygamian have been murdered—and they’re pinning it on him. They give him three days to clear his name, so Rock does what he needs to do to solve the case: He hops on Alistair’s motorcycle (in a hilarious riding sequence on a toy set) down to Mexico City to meet up with another former flame Delores DeWinter (Kristen Wiig). He steps into her club while Wiig sings (really nicely, by the way, if that’s her real voice) a catchy ode to “booze and pills.” When her number’s finished, the camera lingers on both their faces in a highly soap-operatic fashion. Cue the music and Jonrosh who sums up the first episode nicely: “Well, that’s what you’re in for—jazz, adventure, cats, coppers, dead people, pills, booze … and the list goes on.”
The action continues in episode two with Rock and Delores riffing on Ingmar Bergman’s famous Persona sequence recapping the mystery of Fresno’s murder. In a dream, Fresno returns to warn Rock that “doom awaits him” unless he stays on the run, while Dolores shouts non sequiturs in her sleep like “razor clams!” Williams plays everything so straight and serious that it’s a great balance, letting these two funny women shine.
In “Blues for Barnaby,” the mystery deepens. Rock is followed in Mexico City by Salizar Vasquez Deleon (Chin Han) who’s looking for a gold cigarette case that’s a key to the murders. Rock wants to clear his name, so he and Delores head back to L.A. because he only has two days left to clear his name. (Seems that time is offbeat in the jazz world.) There’s a guest turn by Tim Meadows as the medical examiner who shows Rock the bodies of Stygamian and Fresno, and a bizarre sequence in which the two cops on the case stop by to harass Rock, and then join in snacking on Delores’ chocolate banana cake. She tells them it doesn’t have bananas, she substituted motor oil because she ran out of chocolate, and it’s slightly pink because she cut her finger. So they indulge anyway. In a slo-mo scene set to music, the four have a cake party before passing out. It’s nothing more than filler and made absolutely no sense, which is exactly where the fun lies in The Spoils Before Dying.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.