Last night, IFC premiered the three-hour miniseries spoof The Spoils of Babylon. Starring the likes of Tobey Maguire, Kristen Wiig, Tim Robbins, Will Ferrell, and Carey Mulligan (voicing a mannequin love interest), it's one of those bits of pop culture that owes debt to a lot of things while being not quite like anything that ever existed. Created by SNL writers Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele (and directed by the former), it exists to skewer the epic, multi-night network melodramas of the '70s and '80s (a la The Thorn Birds), which makes it the spiritual cousin of other high-concept retro spoofs that take on the format they're affectionately parodying. What Strangers With Candy was to ABC Afterschool Specials, what Grindhouse was to grindhouse schlock, what Far from Heaven was to women's pictures of the '40s and '50s, and perhaps what Dredd was to dumb '80s action bloodbaths, The Spoils of Babylon is to the network miniseries.
To get a sense of the melodrama Spoils is sending up and shilling, in the scene above, Wiig's wealthy Cynthia Morehouse character confronts the wife (played by a mannequin voiced by Mulligan) of her adopted brother, Devon Morehouse (Maguire). Over-enthusiasm, melon-cutting, and plate-breaking ensue.
This was the best scene, I thought, of a patchy satire that is not funny as nearly often as it needs to be (I was stoned when I watched it and still so much of it fell flat). Maguire, in particular, just can't do camp. He seems lost. Even Wiig, a goddess, makes intentional overacting work only some of the time—often, it's just annoying.
While Spoils takes pains to exhibit miniseries realness (all of the external shots are clearly models, the hair is atrocious), it doesn't take enough of them to convincingly take on the appearance of a '70s/'80s miniseries. It's in the wrong aspect ratio (it should be 4:3, but instead is in the most extreme one possible, 2.39:1), the lighting is too good, the composition of the shots is way too competent (at times, it's virtually artful), and each episode is a half hour (as opposed to two hours). It makes sense that they would alter the format to appeal to modern, short-attention-span sensibilities, but Spoils could have really gone for it and it didn't.
Still, it is reliably bizarre and almost everything that comes out of the mouth of Will Ferrell is hilarious. (Under pounds of hair and makeup as Eric Jonrosh, the author of the fictitious Spoils of Babylon novel, he introduces and closes each episode by sending up yet another piece of retro pop culture, Orson Welles' wine commercials.) It's worth watching to see what consciously ridiculous thing it will do next, but two episodes in, it seems clear that Spoils is at once a noble effort and a missed opportunity.