Written by Erin Tatum.
I’m not going to lie, The Spoils of Babylon is a really weird show. Admittedly, I only gave it a chance because I have a childhood crush on Tobey Maguire that never died and I’ll watch Kristen Wiig do just about anything. I had only seen promotion for the show on social media, and judging by the dramatic stills, believed it was a serious period piece. Casting Maguire and Wiig as romantic interests for each other also felt bizarre. My misguided assumptions became all the more hilariously ironic as I finally realized the writers’ intentions.[caption id="attachment_7490" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Will Ferrell as Erin Jonrosh.[/caption]
The Spoils of Babylon is meant to be a gigantic parody of itself, so outlandishly ridiculous that you can’t help but laugh even if the humor is bad. Will Ferrell sets the tone by framing all the episodes as tipsy and pretentious author Eric Jonrosh, who informs us that the original 22-hour epic has been whittled down into just six half-hour episodes. To be honest, I don’t particularly understand why Will Ferrell or his character is there in the first place, but given the star-studded cast, I think the writers are on a mission to prove how many famous people they can convince to do such a silly project.
The central narrative tells the story of Jonah Morehouse (Tim Robbins), a delusional aspiring oilman. The audience gets an account of the events through the eyes of Devon Morehouse (Maguire), who was spontaneously adopted by Jonah as a boy. Jonah also has a biological daughter, Cynthia (Wiig). Cynthia is portrayed as a shallow, smart-aleck know-it-all even as a child. She convinces a reluctant Devon to give her a kiss despite their newly minted family relationship, an awkward moment that kicks off a lifetime of clumsily avoided sexual tension between the honorary siblings. It seems like everything I’m reviewing lately has an incestuous dynamic in it somewhere. Occasionally I know that going in, but this one was a total accident, I swear![caption id="attachment_7507" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Devon tries to comfort Cynthia during another halfhearted rejection.[/caption]
Although they start off as fairly average children, Devon and Cynthia grew up to be complete bumbling idiot as adults. Devon is naïvely committed to his father’s business and Cynthia is a stereotypical ditz hellbent on becoming her brother’s trophy wife. I obviously expected sheer comedic gold from Wiig, especially since she excels at playing airheads. I had reservations about Tobey Maguire because I’ve never seen him in anything funny and he kind of has that long faced expression of perpetual wistfulness. Those big sad baby blue eyes! I’m delighted to report that I underestimated him. Devon’s happy-go-lucky optimism and eagerness to please perfectly contrast Jonah’s gruffness. People have made criticisms that he lacks comedic timing, but his flaws are mostly masked by the social ineptitude of his character.
Humor in The Spoils of Babylon is simplistic and cleverly unexpected. The material never hesitates to mock the stuffiness of historical authenticity. (Scene transitions are carried out using plastic cars and cardboard scenery.) Some of the gags drag on a little too long, but by the middle of them I was giggling too much to notice my eventual boredom. For example, Jonah asks Devon to read the sentimental inscription on a pocket watch he gave him. Devon dutifully recites about ten paragraphs, with each sentence having more ludicrously complex vocabulary than the last. Many of the jokes that run out of steam become funny again precisely because they go on forever.[caption id="attachment_7493" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Awkward.[/caption]
Jonah implausibly finds one bountiful oil well, thrusting the Morehouses into the lap of luxury. It’s now 1941. Devon proves woefully unable to fend off the obsessive sexual aggressions of his sister. Their decision to kiss at last is cringe worthy to say the least. There’s a lot of…licking and sloppy Eskimo kissing. I suppose it’s just as repulsive as you would hope a passionate romantic encounter between two adoptive siblings would be. Adding to the discomfort, their dad has a habit of walking in on them, but he’s gullible and selectively oblivious. Facing pressure from both Jonah and Cynthia, Devon seizes onto the convenient announcement of Pearl Harbor over the radio and decides to go fight for his country. Is that a thing? What about the draft? I know if you were rich you might have been able to buy yourself out of it, but could you voluntarily opt into it as well? Look at me, trying to apply 70-year-old socio-political dynamics to a sketch comedy. This is what I do in my spare time.[caption id="attachment_7495" align="aligncenter" width="298"] Devon with Lady Anne York.[/caption]
In an effort to avoid acknowledging his torrid affair with Cynthia, Devon decides to stay in London after the war. He marries Lady Anne York, a mannequin voiced by Carey Mulligan, and brings her back to the States to introduce her to his family. A mannequin is an actual character. This is why this show is great. Anne notices Cynthia’s jealousy and confronts Devon in despair, but Devon seduces her back into bed. The “sex scene” that follows is a hilariously cheesy, uncomfortable montage of facial closeups and moaning. I like that Tobey Maguire isn’t afraid to make fun of himself. The next morning, Anne and Cynthia have a passive aggressive conversation over breakfast in which Anne basically tells Cynthia that she knows about her creepy incest crush and she needs to back the hell off. Cynthia copes with her anger by frantically cutting up almost all the food on the table into tiny pieces on her plate. I laughed out loud. You don’t need elaborate or super-smart jokes as long as you capture quirky mannerisms of everyday life.[caption id="attachment_7491" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Breakfast angst.[/caption]
Again, I can’t underscore enough how awesome Wiig is as Cynthia. She is a grotesque caricature of a debutante gone wrong and I love it. Her melodrama makes her quite the scene stealer. Her failing in the background makes slow scenes much more entertaining. Plus Devon is kind of dopey, so we need Cynthia’s emotional instability to spice things up a bit.
Sure, The Spoils of Babylon might not have the most universal appeal. Things can get confusing. It’s one of those intentional train wrecks that hooks you in just because you’re in awe of its ridiculousness. Even if you’re a little lost, Maguire and Wiig’s performances alone make it worth the watch. Sit back and enjoy the wine with Eric Jonrosh.