The trailer for The Spoils of Babylon hinted at a show I could like: a parody of the overwrought soaps and miniseries of the 1970s and ’80s, but starring contemporary heavyweights like Tim Robbins, Tobey Maguire, and Kristen Wiig. And the backstory is a Möbius strip of metahumor: the miniseries is the truncated version of the fictional film adaptation of the fictional masterpiece novel by the fictional best-selling author Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell in Orson-Welles-as-wine-shill mode). But after repeat viewings of the two-part premiere, I just don’t find the joke all that funny.
The Spoils of Babylon tells the story (in “93mm Breath-Take-O-Scope”) of the Morehouse clan: patriarch Jonas (Robbins); his daughter, Cynthia (Wiig); and his adopted son, Devon (Maguire). After the opening salvo—literally a gunfight—we settle in for Devon’s narration and flashbacks. We see Jonas Morehouse strike it rich by striking oil, and watch Cynthia and Devon’s complicated (read: incestuous) relationship go from stolen kisses to untimely declarations of love: Cynthia screams it in front of Jonas on her 19th birthday, and Devon waxes eloquentish while in a nosedive somewhere above the Pacific. The second episode has Val Kilmer as an army general who provides clunky exposition; a prison escape and an English aristocrat/mannequin wife for Devon; and, naturally, heartbreak and rivalry for Cynthia. Love, war, duty, and family—and that’s just the first hour (OK, 44 minutes).
I watched the first two episodes, laughed a little, then promptly forgot them. Reading through my notes, I noticed I had jotted down more character and character-actor names than vignettes or jokes. To be fair, “Dixie Melonworth as Dixie Melonworth” deserves a laugh, but I don’t think that’s the payoff the show’s creators, Matt Piedmont and Adam Steele, are banking on. The funny lines I did remember seemed more apropos of stand-up, or even sketch comedy—which is what Spoils currently calls to mind.
So I rewatched both episodes, and came across a scene that does a good job summing up the show and its problems: Jonas gives a teenage Devon a watch with a lengthy inscription. Every time Devon trails off while reading it, Jonas urges him on, and Devon finds more text, and consequently more wisdom. It ends with Devon’s confusion (and a laugh) as he reads what sounds like “You’re fat.” We learn from Jonas that it was to read “Your father, Jonas,” but the jeweler hadn’t made the best use of the space. I felt like Devon in that moment—but in my case I was waiting for a scene to end, or a joke to land, so that I could respond to it. But all I was left with was an incomplete thought, and someone else’s good intentions.