It's no accident that IFC announced its rebranding as… IFC on the same day it debuted The Spoils of Babylon. After all, this star-studded spoof of old-school television miniseries (made in conjunction with Will Ferrell and his Funny or Die outfit) has next to nothing to do with the channel's original identity as the "Independent Film Channel" and everything to do with its burgeoning line-up of alt-comedy shows like Maron and Portlandia. So, going forward, IFC simply stands for IFC and if Spoils works ratings magic, you can expect to see more stunts like it in the future.
And here's hoping that those post-Spoils events are superior to this one, a potentially great concept that apparently went before cameras when it was still in the draft stage. In that respect, it's the natural follow-up to Ferrell's last collaboration with writer/director Matt Piedmont, the deservedly little-seen Casa de mi Padre, a Spanish-language send-up of telenovelas that played like a ragtag collection of half-formed sketch ideas. The gimmick behind Spoils of Babylon is that it's a super-sized adaptation of a weighty, melodramatic tome -- think such vintage network miniseries as The Thorn Birds, Shogun and The Far Pavilions. Appearing only in wraparound segments, Ferrell plays the blustery author of the book on which the series is based, a sprawling story of a Texas oil family and the romance-that-shouldn't-be between a sister Cynthia (Kristen Wiig) and her adopted brother Devon (Tobey Maguire). The entire saga will take six episodes to unfold, but based on last night's back-to-back installments, this isn't the most auspicious beginning for the "new" IFC. Here's our look at the saviors and spoilers of the The Spoils of Babylon's two-part premiere.
Savior: Tobey Maguire
The former Spider-Man doesn't do comedy often, which is a shame because he's actually pretty good at it. His wide-eyed earnestness, which can come off as awkward in serious dramas, makes him the ideal straight man for this kind of spoofery in much the same way that Leslie Nielsen's straight-arrow zaniness anchored Police Squad. While too many of his co-stars (including his leading lady… more on her in a moment) are archly self-aware, Maguire plays every beat sincerely, whether it's gazing admiringly at his adopted father (Tim Robbins, who really should have been doing a Daniel Plainview impression) or humping the literal mannequin standing in for his first bride. And that sincerity is what makes him so darn funny.
Spoiler: Kristen Wiig
Wiig was legitimately funny once, right? It's getting harder and harder to recall if that's accurate or just a collective hallucination, because as the former Saturday Night Live star's career has risen, her comic appeal has been steadily falling. The Spoils of Babylon indulges her worst excesses as a performer, most notably her tendency to play every gag to the rafters in an archly mannered way. Granted, Cynthia is supposed to be obnoxious and irritating, but we should come away hating the character, not the performer.
Savior: The Title Sequence
The almost three-minute credits sequence that opened Babylon's first episode (it was lopped off for the second chapter) was funnier than much of what followed, boasting spot-on soundtrack choices and a hilarious roll-call of fake actor names. Maybe Piedmont and Ferrell should have quit while they were ahead and released them as a standalone Funny or Die video.
Spoiler: The Grindhouse In-Jokes
The deliberate continuity errors, production bloopers and use of toy cars are all carry-overs from Casa de mi Padre, which strained to be the Grindhouse of the telenovela world in the way it imitated the genre's technical deficiencies and ridiculous conventions. It wasn't especially funny there and it's not all that hilarious here either, feeling more like something that the filmmakers came up between takes to amuse themselves rather than anyone watching. (Although keeping track of Val Kilmer's hat-on/hat-off appearance in the second episode did provide a few minor chuckles.)
Savior: Will Ferrell
To be honest, Eric Jonrosh is little more than a fatter, more facial hair-endowed version of Ferrell's anchorman windbag Ron Burgundy, prone to frequent misstatements and outright distortions. But the guy is just so darn good at playing pompous windbags, you kind of forgive him, especially when he comes up with lines like "We have to content ourselves with the house we've built or succumb to the madness" and "What year is this?" seemingly out of the blue. The campaign starts here to get Jonrosh his own one-man Broadway show.
Spoiler: The Length
Last night's double bill left us with four episodes to go, which feels like four episodes too long. While the purpose of The Spoils of Babylon is to recreate the sprawl of old-school miniseries (and there are still some actors who didn't appear last night that we're looking forward to seeing, including Michael Sheen), this really does feel like an idea that would have played better in clip show form or, better yet, 11-minute installments like Burning Love. Unless the series has some major stylistic shake-ups in store, we feel like we've sampled everything it has to offer. The fact that it's still going on makes it resemble the protracted set-up to a not-very-funny punchline.
Savior: The Mannequin
The best performer in the cast next to Maguire? The life-sized dummy he's married to, voiced marvelously by Carey Mulligan. Get her a spin-off, stat. That we'd definitely stick around for.
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