The miniseries remains one of television's most time honored storytelling traditions. Growing out of necessity to tell stories that were too involved (or perhaps not marketable enough) for the big screen, the miniseries' heydey was arguably the 1970s. From the legendary "Roots" to the somewhat forgotten "Rich Man, Poor Man", the miniseries offered viewers, who were willing to commit to an hour or two of dedicated program over a stretch of multiple evenings, a tale not hastily edited to fit a two-hour time block, but rich storytelling, often adapted from behemoth sized novels, peppered by casts of genre stalwarts and occasionally, Hollywood's biggest stars making rare appearances on the small screen. Now, nearly three decades after its troubled production, Eric Jonrosh's "The Spoils of Babylon" gets a commercial release, albiet in a much truncated format form his original 22-hour vision.
Never heard of "The Spoils of Babylon"? Fret not, for this clever, 135-minute six-episode miniseries is actually a clever spoof of the heydey of TV's can't miss event programming. From the minds of writing and directing duo Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele, "The Spoils of Babylon" is a sharply crafted piece of meta humor; one-part miniseries, one-part spoof, and one-part pseudo documentary framing device, "The Spoils of Babylon" casts Will Ferrell as the author of the titular novel, Eric Jonrosh, who introduces the proceedings with an anecdote regarding production prior to every episode. Ferrell's character is grandiose and eccentric, echoing instantly to even the most casual film fan, Orson Welles of the 70s, or at least the colorful caricature so lovingly spoofed in "The Critic" back in the 90s. Following the saga of the Morehouses, "The Spoils of Babylon" instantly sets itself up to be forgiven for any continuity errors with the absurdist claim of the original vision lasting 22-hours, but still manages to captivate viewers with a semi-lucid and wholeheartedly absurd send-up of the genre.
It's nearly impossible to summarize the general gist of "The Spoils of Babylon" in a single paragraph and even if it were possible, flat on paper, the subtext, the sight gags, the parodies that allow each sequence to flow into one another just do not translate and thusly, a great portion of the project's beauty is lost. Still, to get a general idea for the tone of the parody, "The Spoils of Babylon" tracks the Morehouse clan (think the Ewings from Dallas) largely through the eyes and escapades of Cynthia (Kristen Wiig) and her adoptive brother Devon (Tobey Maguire). Not content to keep the story contained on as simple a setting as the family property and neighboring town, "The Spoils of Babylon" spirals into some brief WWII escapades, but firmly cements itself on tales of love, betrayal, shady dealings, and family. The Morehouses, like so many miniseries families before them, unknowingly find themselves in similar situations throughout the years and Piedmont and Steele's ability to hone in on the vapidity these tales often really presented is genius.
Aided by a really tightly honed script, the cast of "The Spoils of Babylon" strays well into the meta category with some strong TV personalities aided in supporting parts by some out-there big screen casting decisions. Apart from Wiig and Maguire who carry the weight of the work on their shoulders, Tim Robbins has a great early part as the patriarch of the family, while Val Kilmer nails the notion of 70s stunt casting to the letter. Other familiar faces include Haley Joel Osment, Michael Sheen, Molly Shannon, and the voice of Carey Mulligan, all in roles that are never allowed to be believable largely due to the casting in the first place, which merely goes to show just how on the nose the entire production was.
"The Spoils of Babylon" was originally an IFC production and fortunately the success it found there, allotted it a follow-up spoof "The Spoils Before Dying" that I've yet to see. If the follow-up is as half on the nose as this entry is, I and likeminded viewers will be in for a treat. Piedmont and Steele have captured some magic in a bottle, offering up a great send-up of the miniseries genre in a very well-paced brief time period; "The Spoils of Babylon" is a great looking (and by that I mean, as tacky as you'd expect a cheap 70s production to look) light miniseries helmed by a strong creative crew and seasoned, comedically minded cast.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer captures a low-budget 70s feels quite admirably, although there's no denying this still has a modern feel. Detail is above average at best and colors reflect both the 70s feel and period nature of the narrative.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track is a fully serviceable effort. Dialogue is clear and effects are as good or bad as the production calls for, playing into the nature of the production and the extra level of meta humor in terms of production quality. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included.
None. It's a great shame that Piedmont and Steele weren't able to record a commentary for even one of the episodes.
If you've ever had the fortune of revelling in one of the 1970s great TV miniseries offerings and been able to acknowledge that beyond the often wonderful storytelling, somethings were often just a bit too melodramatic and production decisions sometimes questionable, then "THe Spoils of Babylon" is two-and-a-half hours of your time well spent. Capturing the absurd nature of the epic novel on the small screen and the wrapping of the package as a whole, "The Spoils of Babylon" is sharply amusing and well-acted (in the best intentionally bad acting sense). Recommended.