The Spoils of Babylon: TV Review
Tobey Maguire, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig lead a sparkling cast in IFC's epic miniseries spoof.
If you have a fondness -- or even a fleeting, distant nostalgia -- for those epic, dramatic miniseries events of the 1970s and '80s, such as North and South, The Thorn Birds or The Winds of War, then IFC's star-laden miniseries spoof will tickle your overwrought, melodramatic fancy. The elements are all here in this Funny or Die production, created, directed and written by Saturday Night Live veteran Matt Piedmont: a stern but benevolent patriarch; a wanton, scheming daughter in love with her adopted brother; the rise and fall of a family's fortunes, rife with secrets, betrayal and perhaps even … murder?
Hosted by "famous author" Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell), a moribund character bloated with self-importance, Babylon's movie-within-a-movie follows the multigenerational story of the Morehouse family, whose members are played by Tim Robbins, Tobey Maguire and Kristen Wiig.
While some elements of Babylon are rather funny send-ups of the genre (like the inclusion of a mannequin, voiced by Carey Mulligan, to illustrate the trend of casting a beautiful-but-wooden love interest), the more overarching desire to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, as the original adaptations of those doorstop-sized novels often did, can make the layered production feel like a mad carnival.
There also are aspects of Babylon that seem as stretched as the miniseries it spoofs, like the elongated inclusion of Jonrosh at the start and conclusion of each segment. "To the victor go the spoils," the show's opening song croons in a perfect, on-the-nose ballad. But to the subtle go the laughs, and the sketch-comedy element sometimes overpowers Babylon's more understated, humorous embrace of pulp genre absurdities.
The comedy is at its best when Babylon behaves like a real melodrama -- with tropes taken to exaggerated extremes -- rather than relying too much on the visual gags of a bygone era.
The miniseries' real treasure, though, is Maguire, who plays his leading-man role with the stately dedication befitting of his fictional actor self, Dirk Snowfield. While the production whirls around him, Maguire maintains his grip on the silly material by playing it not just straight but with true blinkered intensity.
Ultimately, as the Morehouses' story unfolds its intrigue, greed and forbidden passions with panache, perhaps the funniest thing about it all is how easy it is to genuinely get drawn into the story. What Babylon seems to know is that, when it comes to the topsy-turvy world of melodrama -- parody or not -- the most absurd elements often are the ones that are the most beloved.