Monday, February 10, 2014

The Spoils of Babylon - Because Sometimes I Watch Things Outside of Film

As the title suggests in part, this is born out of one of those times where I decide to take on something from the world of television (not a first for me as last year's Christmas special writeup showed. Plus that made for TV movie version of Les Miserables back during Summer Reading if you want to count it.)

In this particular case, I had promised to give this one a writeup after it completed its short run.

That said, as I sit down to compose my thoughts on this show, I'm struck by a discussion that occurred within the last year or so. Comedian/critic Doug Walker had done a video, and subsequently some convention panels/discussions on the notion of parody as a viable means of entertainment. One of the big talking points was whether or not the rather crassly commercial wave of '* Movie' films, designed to stripmine pop culture on the cheap to drum up just enough interest to cash in on their opening weekend, were a sign that parody was becoming a dying form of humor. There was a lot of discussion from all camps, with people bringing up everything from the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy to the numerous 'Abridged' joke series going on the web. The consensus seemed to be mixed overall, but largely deciding that, while the age of the head-on style genre roast a la Airplane! or Blazing Saddles may be in a lull, parody in general is still quite alive and kicking in other forms.

Which brings us to Eric Jonrosh's The Spoils of Babylon: a six-episode series made as a co-op between Funny or Die and IFC. When this was first advertised, I really wasn't sure what to make of it. It seemed like a comedy, but it was still delivering itself with enough of a straight face to make one question it at first. It wasn't until the show got closer to release and more information came out that I became interested in giving it a look. In no small part because the premise reminded me of the earlier British series Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (which, in its own right, is a wonderfully bizarre riff on 80s British television, horror shows, and the laughably egomaniacal author at the center of it all.)
In this case, rather than riffing on low-budget British horror television, IFC aimed its guns both higher and (relatively) more obscure: firing a warning shot across the bow of the old big-budget all-star miniseries that reigned supreme in the 70s and 80s (Think The Thorn Birds or North and South). Like Darkplace, Spoils of Babylon starts and ends each episode with an appearance by fictional author Eric Jonrosh: Will Ferrell does a scenery gnawing impression of the later years of the life of Orson Welles, a persona that's entertaining enough in his own right. The story Jonrosh puts together is a mishmash of melodrama archetypes. What results could almost be summed up as "What would happen if we sat Douglas Sirk down with a crack pipe and a copy of The Thorn Birds?" Family legacies, forbidden love, changing eras, drug abuse, and children born out of wedlock fly fast and loose over the show's six episode span (trimmed down from what Jonrosh claims to be his original 22 hour cut.)

Somehow, this image just on its own perfectly sums up the fake feeling they're trying to evoke.

As is often the case in parodies, while the script in itself can be funny, this is another example where the bulk of the humor lies in its execution. First and foremost is in the cast on this . They, within the show's wonderfully skewed directorial style - which we'll be getting to next - all play their roles in such a way that they can enjoy playing up the overacting, but also still keep within the framework of the project. Despite how over the top the production gets, and he has his share of moments, Tobey Maguire actually tends to become the comic straight man in many scenes. To his credit, he can deliver the laughs when needed, and to be able to keep to the straight man role in a show like this is an accomplishment in and of itself. Next to him, much of the rest of the cast get to have a bit more freedom to make with the insanity - none more than Kristen Wiig as his adopted sister/lover/rival ( gets complicated.) Wiig starts the show at a bit of a restrained pace, but come the end of the first episode, she cuts the brake cables and handles the rest of the series playing up the over-the-top craziness with a manic energy that no one else quite manages to match, despite some VERY game attempts. Next to Wiig, the two biggest standouts here are, appropriately, also the other two major members of the story's main family. As the patriarch in the first few episodes, Tim Robbins, like Maguire, tends to be in the straight man role more than the comedic role. But he still sneaks some great laughs in with the more understated reactions to the craziness around him. Also, I have to give him some extra points for keeping to one joke introduced on the sly in the first episode and staying with it for the entirety of his run (when introducing the cast, as different actors, Jonrosh assures us that despite Robbins's character being played by a British actor, he does a very convincing American accent - which then leads to Robbins slipping into British during random scenes.) The other standout, rounding out the clan, is Haley Joel Osment as Maguire and Wiig's bastard offspring (like I said, complicated.) Osment's Winston definitely takes after his mother, playing up the gleeful crazy. In particular, his fight with Wiig in episode 5 is one of the best continuous laughs of the show's run. After having been out of the limelight for a while, it's safe to say that, while Osment's days as the lead may have passed, he's actually shaping up to have a fairly promising career in comedy if he plays his cards right.

...okay, so there's also Maguire's British wife played by a voiced-over mannequin.
...and yes, they DO have a love scene together. It's very likely as crazy on screen as it may be in your heads right now.

Alongside the cast, the other area where this show really sticks to its story is in the direction. As we're first lead into this opus, Jonrosh assures us that it's a high profile project that he pulled out all the stops on. In turn, Matt Piedmont's actual direction runs on the idea that Jonrosh was full of crap. The show is laced with all sorts of examples of carefully orchestrated directorial ineptitude that lead to some great laughs. A strong example of this is in the second episode, where a frustrated Robbins starts repeatedly slapping a hysterical Wiig. Piedmont turns the scene into a continuity nightmare, with the two cast members changing shots and positions with each slap, before concluding it on a hilariously understated tap. Further, the sheer number of different directorial tricks the show plays with, often deliberately failing at them (a fake use of classic 3-D in the third episode is another prize winner here) lends more to the sense that Piedmont knows exactly what he's doing and has done it VERY well.

I just want to state for the record, I didn't alter this image in any way beyond resizing it for the blog. Time has NOT been kind to Mr. Osment.
Still, like I said above, he's got a sense of humor at least.

It's actually a bit odd for me to be praising some of this, since as a general rule, I've usually been of the mind that you can't force bad. I've seen many other productions try to do so bad it's good and just fall on their faces. I think the difference here is, this isn't so much a pure 'so bad it's good' but rather the crappy elements further adding to the joke at the center of all of this that is Eric Jonrosh. All the time, Ferrell plays him as a man who believes himself to be a misunderstood genius and-even after we find out his miniseries is (by design, and yet not) overacted, shoddily directed, and riddled with (most damning for him) some of the most laughably bad prose this side of Battlefield: Earth- he still continues to buy into his own perceived greatness. It's like an insane and slightly drunk variant of a Matroska doll. Rather than just being a straight-up 'look at this deliberately bad production we made' project, The Spoils of Babylon makes it slightly more ambitious, making the ineptitude part of a larger mechanism - rather than being the entire joke, the failure is also a reflection on the wine-soaked ego of its fictional author.

and now, as Jonrosh would himself say it best "when the wine is gone, it's time to leave."

I'll likely be attempting a bit more work along this line in the future. For now, don't worry, next will be a straight-up film writeup again.

Till then.

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