updated 01/09/2014 AT 9:30 PM ET
•originally published 01/09/2014 AT 2:40 PM ET
The Spoils of Babylon, premiering Thursday on IFC (10 p.m. ET/PT) and produced by Funny or Die, is more correctly titled – with a significant loss of magnificent pretentiousness – Eric Jonrosh’s The Spoils of Babylon.
It also bills itself as an epic television event, but in truth boils down to a mere six half-hour episodes.
And although Babylon boasts a cast that starts somewhere in the A-list (Tobey Maguire, Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell), it stoops a little to accommodate a few highly respectable character actors (Tim Robbins, Michael Sheen). Then it improbably winds down to Haley Joel Osment, the former child star of The Sixth Sense, and Val Kilmer.
In other words, Babylon is asinine – it’s supposed to be – and from time to time hilarious. It’s ostensibly a parody of miniseries from the ’70s and ’80s, when audiences were swept up by long, often lumbering superproductions like The Thorn Birds and The Winds of War. These were both based on massive best-sellers and, to the extent that I remember them, something like The Love Boat inflated to the size of The Forsyte Saga.
You might ask why, at this particular moment in the new millennium, anyone would feel the need to parody these long-form dinosaurs – perhaps because we now look down from a lofty peak in which long-form television has finally come of age, at least if you’re willing to forgive the stumblebum stupidity that has scuttled Showtime’s Homeland.
Babylon also seems to borrow elements (again, for no discernible purpose) from There Will Be Blood and the 1956 classic Douglas Sirk melodrama Written on the Wind.
However, the good thing about comedy is that it really doesn’t have to make any more sense than your cat does when it s in one of those weird darting moods. It just has to be funny. Which a weird darting cat dependably is.
So: Who is Eric Jonrosh? He is the (fictional) author of a (fictional) mammoth work of trash, The Spoils of Babylon. Introducing and concluding each episode, Jonrosh is played by Ferrell, bearded and fat-suited to suggest the great director Orson Welles in the days when he supported himself – and got himself pickled – doing TV ads for Paul Masson wine.
Ferrell is fantastic – arrogant, ridiculous, sloshed – and easily the best thing here: Ron Burgundy as Falstaff.
The story, judging from the two episodes made available to critics, has something to do with Maguire and Wiig, unrelated but raised as siblings amid the trappings of wealth just before World War II. (When we see their mansion’s exterior, it’s a cheap plastic model, not much better than something to accessorize a toy railroad.) They are in love. Then Maguire, returning home from fighting in the Pacific, rashly brings along a British wife, played by a mannequin with the voice of Carey Mulligan.
Despite the Funny or Die production credit, this is all much closer in tone to Airplane and Scary Movie than Ferrell’s special brand of smart-fatuous character comedy. Jokes are thrown at the wall. Many stick, many don’t – but enough of them do that any viewer should find him– or herself suddenly yanked into a laughing fit.
Tom Gliatto (@gliattoT) January 9, 2014