IFC’s Funny Or Die-produced epic miniseries The Spoils of Babylon premiered its first installment last night, and so far it’s received mixed reviews from critics. While we’ll have to wait until all six episodes air to conclusively judge, the first two episodes both have enough hits (and misses) to get a good feel for what we can expect from former SNL writers Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele’s newest collaboration since 2012’s Casa de Mi Padre. Here are three takeaways from the beginnings of this playfully nostalgic, time sweeping, and star-studded saga that’s found the perfect home alongside Comedy Bang! Bang!, The Birthday Boys, and Portlandia.
The influence of Spoils runs deeper than the 80s
Almost every online review has compared Spoils to the two same 80s miniseries The Winds of War and The Thorn Birds. While both have elements of wartime and forbidden love found in Spoils, the 1956 Douglas Sirk film Written on the Wind not only contains much of the same basic plot (mainly the scheming nymphomaniac daughter of an oil baron who desperately wants to sleep with her overly noble adopted brother) but a striking aesthetic resemblance in many of its scenes. Written on the Wind was a feature film rather than a television miniseries but served as a highly influential precursor to the popular prime-time soaps of the 70s by setting a tone, as Roger Ebert wrote, “in which shocking behavior is treated with passionate solemnity, while parody burbles underneath.” Here are just a few examples of some other similarities between Wind and Spoils:
The alcoholic Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) driving in his yellow car through the darkness VS the alcoholic Devon Morehouse (Tobey Maguire) driving in his yellow car through the darkness
Lucy Moore Hadley (Dorothy Malone) sitting at the oil company’s executive chair VS Cynthia Morehouse (Kristen Wiig) sitting at the oil company’s executive chair
The towering headquarters of big oil companies Hadley Oil and Morehouse Conglomerated
Lucy and Cynthia both in their mourning outfits
Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell carry the humor
If there’s one thing Spoils has covered, it’s having a hilariously bizarre cast. It’s like the writers picked names out of a bag, and considering the stars involved – Val Kilmer, Tim Robbins, Jessica Alba, Haley Joel Osment, the voice of Carey Mulligan, and more – their presence is really more of a novelty than a huge comedy contribution. Even Tobey Maguire, who manages to turn a potentially sarcastic meta performance as a struggling actor playing a crummy role into something both earnest and smirk-worthy, loses his steam at points (especially when he rattles on about a simple point for way too long – a character trait that’s only funny the first time). Wiig, on the other hand, kills it as the dreamy, motivated, and impressively stupid Cynthia (“War. W-O-R-E” or “What is the economy?”), and her overdramatic facial contortions echo back to her SNL days as Freakin’ Excited Sue, hammy “Secret Word” frequenter Mindy Grayson, or the flirtatious secretary Trina (“Ohh Thoomas…”). Will Ferrell’s brief bits of screen time as the film’s bearded, bloated, burbling, Falstaffianly self-important writer/director/producer Eric Jonrosh, who introduces each episode while double fisting goblets of red wine, is the “actual” show’s biggest competition as far as being laugh-out-loud-worthy and also harks back to his SNL days – think James Lipton mixed with Roger Clarvin of “The Love-ahs.”
Production value is a main character
From Drunk History to SNL’s “Darrell’s House” and Wes Anderson spoof, many successful recent comedy sketches and series have proven that set design, cinematography, and post-production elements can not only make or break the humor but serve as a driving and deconstructive force. Spoils not only attempts to imitate epic miniseries tropes, but it does so in a purposely amateurish way, from the train set miniatures to the popsicle stick visible under the airplanes and mismatched World War 2 newsreel footage. The crude special effects allow Spoils to blur the line between parodying the lazier melodrama clichés and being guilty of a few lazy, or at least lulled, moments of its own volition, which is probably the series’ biggest strength and weakness combined. But at least we all get to watch a ragtag team of SNL veterans and former/present film stars get all gussied up to lampoon a now-extinct glorious era of television entertainment (an idea Adam Scott’s Greatest Event in Television History pulls off as well), and we still have generations to go until we reach the end of the Morehouse saga.