The “pure spoof,” as I’ll call it, is a type of story that shouldn’t work under any rational analysis of what makes a good story. We enjoy stories by being invested in characters, by being pulled along by a series of interesting events, or by appreciating the artful construction of set-ups and payoffs. The “pure spoof” genre, which includes films like Airplane or Scary Movie, instead seeks to have characters the audience does not care about, plot events played for gags, and “revelations” determined by the material being spoofed.
Why we enjoy these works remains something of a mystery, but the good ones are effective at making us laugh. By this standard, IFC’s new faux-drama The Spoils of Babylon is a resounding success in deliberately terrible television.
Produced by Internet comedy group Funny or Die, the show is presented as a re-airing of a 1970s or ’80s miniseries based on the work of author Eric Jonrosh, played by Will Ferrell. The story itself follows the rise and fall of the Morehouse family through the illicit love affair between adopted siblings Devon (Tobey Maguire) and Cynthia (Kristen Wiig). The ensuing story takes place over numerous decades— despite the characters’ appearing to age by merely a few years—and finds Devon helping his father strike it rich in the oil fields of Texas before flying in the Pacific Theater of World War II and even joining the Beatnik movement of the 60s.
The show begins with Ferrell as author Jonrosh extolling the virtues of his work while drinking copious amounts of wine in an empty restaurant. From there, we see Maguire and Haley Joel Osment engage in a deadly shootout before Maguire drives (with toy cars on an obvious miniature set used to show travel) to a building so he can record his story while bleeding out from a gunshot wound. No illusions are ever made about what this series strives to be and if anything, it grows more ridiculous over time.
From Wiig teleporting around a room between shots to Maguire bringing home a mannequin wife (voiced by Carey Mulligan) from England after the war, every scene goes the extra mile to grab the laughs, every premise more ridiculous than the last. Yet the show never stretches without purpose: Nearly every joke or absurd moment is either a twist on some trope from the material being parodied (although I admit that my knowledge of such old TV miniseries is very limited) or some kind of bizarre metaphor.
This stands in stark contrast to many contemporary spoof movies that seem content to take a caricature of a figure from some recent movie, pair it with a fart joke, and call that parody. Babylon never shies away from the absurd, but there is always the sense of effort put into the show that its contemporaries lack. If nothing else, the show is a fine example of the quality that a spoof can reach when really talented people are involved.
Of course it helps that the silliness on display is much more palatable in small doses than in a feature-length film. Each episode lasts just over 22 minutes and for the most part moves from scene to scene in quick succession. The good jokes never overstay their welcome and the bad jokes are quickly ousted before they bog down the show.
So on a larger scale, it’s probably good that this show is limited to such a short run so it can avoid the inevitable downward spiral that seems natural to its brethren. As it stands, watching the entire series once the remaining episodes are available will make for an entertaining afternoon time-waster just in time for midterms.