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Spoils of Babylon Season 1, The
I'm a big fan of the uber-subtle parody style of writer/director Matt Piedmont and writer Andrew Steele. While working on various Funny or Die sketches, including some for the web-site's short-lived HBO show, Piedmont and Steele created the underrated Mexican telenovela parody Casa de mi Padre, which was essentially a typical melodramatic telenovela script with just a couple of jokes added. Almost all of the parody elements relied on the over the top and appropriately gaudy execution of the fairly straightforward melodrama script. By the time the same team came up with the miniseries The Spoils of Babylon, their unique stylistic approach to parodies became set in stone.
In the style of 1970s sprawling melodrama/romance miniseries like The Thorn Birds, The Spoils of Babylon chronicles the forbidden love between two wealthy stepsiblings, Devon (Tobey Maguire) and Cynthia (Kristen Wiig), as they go through decades trying to come to terms with their feelings for each other, in a saucy story full of scandalous back stabbings and delicious intrigue. In fact, The Spoils of Babylon is supposed to be a lost "masterpiece" written and directed in the late 70s by a portly vulgar alcoholic named Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell), a late-era Orson Welles-type who introduces each episode in a high class restaurant while drinking copious amounts of red wine and creeping on the poor waitresses.
The concept will not be original to fans of the brilliant British show Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, which used a similar setup to show the audience a "lost" horror miniseries written and directed by a Stephen King-type. The Spoils of Babylon differs significantly from Darkplace simply by exploiting a completely different genre with a completely different style.
Darkplace made fun of bad horror filmmaking that was completely inept at scaring its audience, while The Spoils of Babylon uses the clichés of 70s romance miniseries in a fairly straightforward way, as if to prove that moving from old-fashioned melodrama into all out parody requires only a slight push. One other big difference between the two shows is that, apart from the bookend scenes with Eric Jonrosh, The Spoils of Babylon doesn't intercut the show with "behind the scenes interviews" the way Darkplace does.
The performances by Maguire, Wiig, and a cast full of game actors like Tim Robbins, Michael Sheen, and Haley Joel Osment, turn up the usual over the top performances found in straight melodramas only slightly. The performances on those shows were already at a 10. By merely pushing them to 11, they create comedy gold. Every single line, including mundane small talk, is read as if the world is coming to an end. The script for each episode follows every single cliché of a predictable goofy melodrama series, and the whole show could easily be shot as straight drama without a hint of intentional humor. The parody elements are added through the insanely heavy-handed performances and the overtly dramatic yet stunningly cheap execution.
The hints at bad filmmaking ranges from the obvious (The use of cheap models for establishing shots) to the fairly subtle (Rear projection footage awkwardly looping during driving scenes, actors in the same scene obviously shot in different places insisting that they "they're in the same room"). Adding an unapologetically gaudy visual style full of bright pastel colors and cringe-inducing soft focus helps sell the illusion.
It's a shame that The Spoils of Babylon still isn't available on Blu-ray stateside (An expensive Australian Blu-ray is available through Amazon). Yes, this is a comedy show, but the intentionally over the top visual style and color palette deserves to be seen in HD. Upconverted on my 55" HDTV, the show looked as sharp as it could, with nice color representation. There were some minor aliasing issues, and since the bitrate wasn't very high, pixels were clearly visible. That being said, the transfer is just fine for SD.
The lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track does a good job representing the overtly dramatic sound mix of The Spoils of Babylon. Just like it does with the visuals, the show doesn't shy away from using every sensationalist sound trick to parody the genre, from the unrelentingly operatic score, to every sound effect being exaggerated to its limits. In order to fully appreciate the over the top qualities of the show, make sure to watch it on a surround system.
None, not even a shot of Eric Jonrosh chugging a full glass of wine.
The Spoils of Babylon is not for everyone, certainly not for audiences who look for obvious jokes in their parodies. But fans of incredibly dry absurdist humor who are also familiar with the clichés of melodramas should get a kick out of it. This is one comedy show that truly deserves an HD release, but for now, this DVD will do. If you dig it, make sure to check out its follow-up, The Spoils Before Dying, which is as funny, if not funnier.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com