The Spoils of Babylon parodies a form of miniseries that Hollywood ostensibly doesn’t really produce anymore: the great kitschy family saga, as embodied by The Thorn Birds and Captains and the Kings, that follows a clan’s rising and ebbing tides of fortune and calamity over several decades, with plenty of room allotted for sex, booze, and convoluted blood feuds. The principle absurdity of these miniseries, which The Spoils of Babylon creators Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele immediately seize on, is how they glorify softcore fantasies of sex and wealth with a hilariously disingenuous pretense of addressing American history. Banal capsule summaries of key events, such as the stock market collapse of 1929, or the rise of the Texas oil barons, are interspersed with inoffensively vague trysts and melodramatic proclamations because these bloated TV events felt the need to justify their grandiosity with a motivation theoretically more noble than merely commanding more than one night of a viewer’s attention. Of course, the “history” offered by these miniseries never actually questioned the allotment of power in this country. We were still meant to unconditionally accept these rich white folks as our gods and drink in their shenanigans in a voyeuristic fantasy context.
The Spoils of Babylon’s meta game-playing is endless, as it’s an indulgent celebrity-rich series steeped in implicative self-amusement (and self-congratulation) that’s spoofing an older, more archaic result of similar impulses. The differences between something like The Thorn Birds and The Spoils of Babylon say quite a bit about the evolution of how viewers have come to process pop culture in the Internet age: The Thorn Birds is too nakedly absurd and earnest to be taken seriously nowadays, but if you offer the same sex and double crosses with a heavy dollop of irony, you’re good to go.
One of the most amusing subtexts of The Spoils of Babylon is its quiet assertion that the past soaps to which we now feel superior are only superficially less mature than many of the big-budget Oscar extravaganzas that are celebrated each year with a straight face. When a troubled, unceasingly pontificating adopted family scion played by Tobey Maguire starts to sound off about his love for his horny business-magnate sister (Kristen Wiig) as he plummets to his potential doom in the middle of a World War II air-fight, you can’t help but wonder how far we actually are from the florid contrivances of Titanic, Pearl Harbor, or, in a roundabout fashion, the recent corporate advertisement Saving Mr. Banks.
It’s dada high-wire act presided over by quasi-satirical nutters, and the chaos they invoke is oddly life-affirming.
But to assign too much of a subtext to The Spoils of Babylon is to weirdly shortchange it. The show’s sensibility is profoundly informed by producer and co-star Will Ferrell, as it similarly favors the actor’s knack for comedy sprung from the arbitrary. The presiding joke of the series is the same punchline that drove Ferrell’s underrated Casa de Mi Padre: the fact that it exists at all. Why parody a type of miniseries no one takes seriously anyway, apart from linking it to its contemporary, more respected, media offspring? As an artist, Ferrell is drawn to obsessive specificity; he’s the comedian of our age because he understands and satirizes the contemporary audience’s hunger for media for its own sake. He understands that anything in existence is adored by someone.
Ferrell introduces each episode as a legendary obese blowhard who’s obviously 70 percent of a reference to Orson Welles in his late period, with maybe a 30-percent allusion to a similarly autumn-era Ernest Hemingway. In these segments, Ferrell’s writer explains to us that The Spoils of Babylon was a series produced long ago at much expense so as to capitalize on every available TV innovation of the time (the specifics of these references don’t bear ruining), and then proceeds to elaborate on the behind-the-scenes contexts of the various actors featured, who’re playing characters derived from seemingly every family soap cliché in the history of the medium.
Which is to say that A-listers such as Maguire, Wiig, and Tim Robbins have been recruited to play bad actors desperately playing roles they know to be lousy, and part of the fun is in watching them haphazardly pick and choose which of those various dimensions to acknowledge in any given moment, as a variety of stock-footage references to Ed Wood and 1970s disco and god-only-knows-what-else are also interspersed for the hell of it. The Spoils of Babylon is a dada high-wire act presided over by quasi-satirical nutters, and the chaos they invoke is oddly life-affirming. There has to be authentic joy in committing to horseshit this grandly.