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To the victor belong the Spoils, though it’s unlikely viewers will feel they’ve won much of anything with this follow-up to 2014’s epic miniseries pastiche The Spoils of Babylon. The target there was bloated TV events of the ‘70s and ‘80s like The Thorn Birds and Rich Man, Poor Man, popular doorstop novel adaptations which drew out their soapy dramas over multiple episodes. Each installment was introduced by “writer-director” Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell), a later-years-Orson-Wellesian blowhard who pontificates on his genius in between unhealthy gulps of red wine.
Jonrosh is back, a little heavier and just as highfalutin, as our guide for the beat-era cinema parody The Spoils Before Dying. With this Spoils, he says, he aimed to invent a new genre called “post-post-modern French neo-fake-ism.” Instead, so the alternate history goes, his druggy noir about a jazz musician wrongly accused of murder was banned and is only now being seen for the first time, divided into six half-hour parts airing over three nights.
The opening scenes are funny mainly for their joke titles, which reference shooting formats like “Bastille-o-Scope” and include credits for “Metaphysical Visual Consultant” and “Inner Ear Collages By … .” Then the story proper begins with ivory-tickling jazzman Rock Banyon (Michael Kenneth Williams) narrating — in primo hard-boiled-ese — a twisted tale of conspiracy and murder. It starts with the death of his former girlfriend, singer Fresno Foxglove (Maya Rudolph), and a businessman named Stygamiun (Richard Halverson) from bullets to the temple. The crime is pinned on Banyon and the cops give him three days to clear his name.
And what a packed three days it is, as Banyon reconnects with another ladyfriend crooner, Delores O’Dell (Kristen Wiig), is tailed by a prissy Hispanic gangster played by the notably non-Hispanic Chin Han, and uncovers a crazy plot involving the Mattachine society, FBI head honcho J. Edgar Hoover, and a poetry-spouting hepcat (like, a literal cat) named Dizzy (voiced by Peter Coyote). All this while Banyon simultaneously avoids recording the “strings” album that his bawdy British manager Alistair St. Barnaby-Bixby-Jones (Haley Joel Osment) is demanding his client make to bolster his musical profile.
The look of the miniseries, which like The Spoils of Babylon was co-written and directed by Matt Piedmont, is frequently delightful, with its garish colors and intentionally cheesy effects work. (Transitions between scenes often make use of Mr. Rogers-esque models, with toy motorcycles and cars moving around as if pushed by an unseen child’s hand.) Williams makes for a good beleaguered hero because he plays the whole thing straight, while almost everyone else around him clowns it up to an irritating degree. The notable exception is Michael Sheen as closeted businessman Kenton Price. He walks the line between heated melodrama and ribald farce expertly; just listening to the way he says “homosexual” (HAH-muh-SESX-oo-ul) is enough to elicit chuckles.
Despite the occasional laughs, though, this is still a one-note premise stretched excruciatingly thin, evidenced in an early scene in which Wiig’s chanteuse belts a spirited ode to “Booze ‘n’ Pills.” It’s funny at first, but Wiig never deepens the jest, merely repeating the lyrics (just “booze ‘n’ pills” over and over) with minor variation until her paltry attempt to wring laughs becomes glaring. (Call it SNL syndrome.) Compare the sequence to its seeming inspiration — the hilarious “I’m Tired” musical number from Mel Brooks‘ Blazing Saddles, featuring Madeline Kahn as an exasperated Dietrich-like diva — and its feebleness becomes even more pronounced. It’s this same sort of skin-deep comedy that’s stretched out over the entirety of the miniseries, to the point that at the beginning of episode six, when Ferrell-as-Jonrosh says, with evident exhaustion, “You made it!” it hardly feels like he’s having a laugh.
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