Although one could rightly accuse Funny or Die's IFC program "The Spoils of Babylon" of having little ambition beyond being a consistent laugh generator, it would be hard to deny its effectiveness. Hearkening back to the golden age of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof comedy -- Airplane!, The Naked Gun, and their underrated crown jewel, Top Secret! -- "Babylon" served up mile-a-minute sequences in which a jaw-dropping ensemble cast (including Tobey Maguire, Kristen Wiig, Tim Robbins, Val Kilmer, and Carey Mulligan voicing a mannequin) delivered an utterly ridiculous soap opera story of lightly incestuous betrayal with their straightest faces. As a fan, I was already happy to see creators Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele (Casa de Mi Padre) take on another "Spoils", but sadly, this follow up is flatter than the original.
"The Spoils Before Dying" is another novel by consistently wasted multi-hyphenate Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell), who wrote and directed the adaptation of his own book, provides introductions and epilogues for each of the series' six episodes. The story follows jazz musician Rock Banyon (Michael K. Williams) as he tries to investigate the death of one of his many lovers and collaborators, Fresno Foxglove (Maya Rudolph) -- by necessity, as the cops have given him three days before they pin the murder on him. With every step down the rabbit hole (or foxglove), Rock finds increasingly curious connections, including connections to scientists and drug dealers, all while his excessively animated agent Alistair St. Barnaby-Bixby-Jones (Haley Joel Osment) tries to get him to record a jazz-with-strings album, and another former-flame/jazz singer Delores DeWinter (Kristen Wiig) gets close to him again.
As a huge fan of "The Wire", one of the biggest draws of "Dying" is the chance to see Michael K. Williams continue to expand his comic chops (following a multi-episode stint on "Community" and ahead of a role in Wiig's upcoming Ghostbusters reboot). Unfortunately, Piedmont and Steele seem to have given him more of a straight-man role, with humor mostly springing from Williams' intensity amidst silliness from guest stars like Tim Meadows and Chris Parnell rather than giving Williams himself a chance to be wacky. From time to time, the dialogue gives him a metaphor or two worthy of Frank Drebin, but MKW and "Spoils" turn out to be less than the match made in heaven one might hope they'd be.
It doesn't help that "Spoils" version of settling into a groove is less like a needle dropping onto a vinyl record and more like getting stuck in a rut. Although the nature of spoof comedy is that the rhythms are somewhat predictable (interpret something ludicrous literally, drag out awkward moments, spotlight poor acting and filmmaking), "Dying" doesn't bring much to the table that "Babylon" didn't already do better. The best material in "Dying" is the stuff that has no level of seriousness to it at all, such as the ghost of Fresno Foxlove occasionally popping in to give Rock some advice (Rudolph's second-best ghost performance behind MacGruber), and Rock Banyon's talking cat Dizzy (Peter Coyote). It's also a shame that Wiig's presence is pretty minor for most of the season; while I'm sure Piedmont and Steele would've loved to have her for as much of "Dying" as possible, her hilarious performance in "Babylon" unintentionally underlines her absence here.
That said, despite this follow-up's bout of sequelitis, the format of "Babylon" is flexible enough that another season could just as easily set everything right on its feet, and the revolving door of outstanding guest stars and cameo appearances leaves things open for Williams to get a chance to get as goofy as everyone else. Jonrosh's bragging about the genius of his own work is obviously meant to be a joke, but in "Dying", the flimsiness of his claims hit a little close to home. Hopefully a third "Spoils" is fresher than this one.
The key art for "Spoils Before Dying" actually kind of makes it look as if it could be Shakespearean, at a glance. The art has a teal-and-black color scheme that looks stylish, and all in all, the design feels a little less cheap than the sparse cover Anchor Bay provided for "Babylon."
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, "Dying" looks and sounds decent. However, the change in setting from 1970s soap opera to 1970s jazz noir means that "Dying" attempts to look significantly more stylish than its predecessor, with moody jazz bars, shadowy alleyways, and dingy motel rooms. It's accompanied by a number of fairly evocative jazz spoofs, which sound decent in full surround sound. It's a shame that the "Spoils" miniseries have yet to appear on Blu-ray in the United States ("Babylon" got a few overseas releases) -- this one would benefit more than its predecessor from the bump in detail, depth, and richness in both video and audio. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.
"The Spoils Before Dying" had me before I'd even seen "The Spoils of Babylon", but it turns out I should've swapped the program I was more excited for. "Dying" isn't bad, per se, but it feels more familiar and less consistent than the first miniseries, mining fewer laughs and offering less invention. Rent it.
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