Review: ‘The Spoils of Babylon’ too retro for its own good

Tobey Maguire stars in "The Spoils of Babylon."
(Katrina Marcinowsk, IFC)

It’s difficult to know what the folks at Funny or Die were thinking when they created the miniseries spoof “The Spoils of Babylon” debuting Thursday on IFC.

The all-star cast, which includes Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire and Tim Robbins, is certainly a draw, as is the Funny or Die pedigree. Founded by Ferrell’s and Adam McKay’s production team, the comedy website has become a key player in entertainment’s digital ecosystem. A video imagining “Downton Abbey’s” Michelle Dockery in her next role as a tough cop recently made the rounds, and last fall, Comedy Central launched “Drunk History,” based on the Funny or Die Web series.

But a parody of the overwrought miniseries that littered TV in the 1970s and ‘80s, no matter how star-studded, seems too retro for its own good.

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Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that Maguire, much less the typical Funny or Die fan, is old enough to remember such television events as “East of Eden,” “Rich Man, Poor Man” or “The Thorn Birds.” And why make fun of them now? Yes, after years of lying dormant unto the point of death, the miniseries is making something of a comeback, but in shapes more “American Horror Story” than “Centennial.”

Each half hour of “The Spoils of Babylon” is introduced by Eric Jonrosh (Ferrell), the fictitious author of a bestselling epic that he has single-handedly turned into a miniseries. Swaddled in a beard and a fat suit, addressing the camera from behind a phalanx of wine glasses, Ferrell channels the Paul Masson era Orson Welles (“We will sell no wine before its time”) down to the drunken outtakes and invective against the long knives of Hollywood.

It’s funny enough to those of us who actually remember the regrettable final stages of Welles’ career, though I’m not sure what the young folk will think. Perhaps the sight of Ferrell in a funny hat, what with all the “Anchorman 2" frenzy, will be enough.

The story within the story is similarly archaic, following the orphan Devon (Maguire), who is taken in by kindly farmer Jonas Morehouse (Robbins) and his young daughter Cynthia (Wiig), who is more interested in Devon as a lover than an adopted sibling, and the fallout of their lives after the farmer strikes oil.

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Using miniature re-creations for exteriors, complete with toy cars, “Spoils of Babylon” sends up the cheesy production values of many miniseries, along with the soap-operatic dialogue, absurd plot twists and overdone scenarios.

Some of these bits work very well, albeit as free-floating shards of comedy. The opening sequence, in which adult Devon is shot and then drives to his office to begin telling his tale, as well as second-episode scenes in which he brings home his new wife, who is a mannequin, are absolutely hilarious.

But parody works best when its subject is either truly iconic or still relatively fresh in the minds of the audience and, mercifully, the B-list miniseries of yesteryear are neither.

@MarymacTV on Twitter


‘The Spoils of Babylon’

Where: IFC

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)