IFC’s new comedy, “The Spoils of Babylon,” revels in its mocking celebration of the grandiose miniseries that dominated American network TV in the 1980s. Rightly so, given that such miniseries raised melodrama and surprise twin brother-level twists to new heights, yet somehow still tried to take themselves seriously.
The opening sequence, before any of the action even occurs, is golden in itself — novelist Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell in a fatsuit) explains why his “masterpiece” of a show, based on his own novel, that he wrote, produced, financed and directed, never saw the light of day until now, all while acquiring drinks he won’t finish.
Fade out to a fancy hilltop estate, and oil tycoon heir Devon Morehouse (Tobey Maguire) stumbles toward a car, clutching his stomach where he had been shot as his sister Cynthia (Kristen Wiig) emphatically screams and looks on. As the opening credits roll, we see Devon speed off in the car, downing bottle after bottle of both pills and liquor.
The show’s first episode, narrated by Maguire, introduces viewers to his childhood: his adoption by struggling oil man Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins) and his daughter Cynthia, his first kiss from Cynthia (because, y’know, they’re not actually related), his delight at striking it rich with his father when an oil rig finally comes through. The apprehension to reveal his obvious romantic love for Cynthia — as well as Robbins’ stoic-faced forbiddance. Wrapping up the episode is his eventual, and overly dramatic, decision to head off to war on the eve of Pearl Harbor, mere moments after learning of the attack.
While many viewers of “The Spoils of Babylon” might be too young to remember the extravagance of soap operas of the ’70s and ’80s that the show lampoons, it’s easy to see that such series were over-the-top in their portrayal of human emotion and acting. From Ferrell’s drama-and-alcohol-soaked introduction to Maguire’s decision to fight in the war — which Wiig hilariously misinterprets as “wore,” maintaining a straight face — one can easily pick up on the joke.
The fact that such programs took themselves so seriously is worth a few laughs, and “The Spoils of Babylon” isn’t the first time a 21st century TV show has parodied the era: “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” a British miniseries of the same ilk as “Spoils,” also lampoons ’80s horror-melodrama-soap opera madness, complete with over-the-top acting and terrible low-budget special effects, which are true to form in its attempt to capture a very distinct ’80s flair.
“The Spoils of Babylon” succeeds in giving viewers a taste of television productions that will probably never see the light of day again (except as parody), but they are fresh additions to the numerous sitcoms already airing, despite relying on nearly 30-year-old tropes.