The Quiet Brilliance of The Spoils of Babylon

Matt Piedmont is no stranger to absurdist humor. As one of the youngest head writers to have worked on Saturday Night Live, Piedmont is also no stranger to working with Will Ferrell, whose Funny or Die Productions helmed the deliberately cheesy epic known as The Spoils of Babylon. Ribbing off the sweeping sagas that were popular in the 80s, the IFC miniseries spares no comedic expense when it comes to highlighting the preposterousness of this once popular genre.

Co-written with Andrew Steele (who also wrote Casa de Mi Padre), The Spoils of Babylon favors a “wink wink” approach to presenting the various dramas among the lead characters of the Morehouse family. The patriarch, Jonas (Tim Robbins), finds himself to be the lucky owner of an oil well, raising him from the ranks of poverty-stricken Texan to multi-millionaire bigwig. His high-strung daughter, Cynthia (Kristen Wiig), and adopted son, Devon (Tobey Maguire), enjoy the newfound success of their father, while also trying to ignore the feelings they have for one another. Pause for melodramatic music as the incestuous kissing scene at Cynthia’s birthday party takes place.

But from the outset their love is doomed, as the moment they admit how they feel about one another, Devon is called to war. And so begins the consistency of the two being torn apart by destiny. The fact that the author of the novel on which The Spoils of Babylon is based upon, Eric Jonrosh (the homeless-looking Will Ferrell), introduces each installment in an empty restaurant with a glass of red wine and an antiquated radio on the table only serves to add to the ingeniously over the top nature of the series.

With a plot that spans several decades, we are exposed to the sordid rise and fall of the Morehouse name. Devon’s marriage to a pedigreed British woman named Lady Anne York (voiced by Carey Mulligan), who everyone ignores is a mannequin (no doubt a spoof on the low-budget nature of the miniseries genre), prompts a diabolically jealous side of Cynthia. Ultimately, she, too, gets married, albeit to a sniveling, oblivious man called Chet (Michael Sheen). Although both Devon and Cynthia have technically “moved on,” neither one can ever truly let go of the love they share–except Cynthia is the only one willing to get murderous over it.

Married to a mannequin.
Married to a mannequin.
In one of many iconic scenes from the show, Cynthia kills the mannequin in a fire, which won’t be the first time one of Devon’s great loves is offed (Jessica Alba as marine biologist Dixie Mellonworth is drowned by Cynthia’s depraved son, Winston, played by a bullfrog-looking Haley Joel Osment). But it isn’t just the ludicrous plot points that make The Spoils of Babylon a unique masterpiece. It’s also the understated low-budget aesthetic that is carefully cultivated in every scene–from poorly made miniatures to spaceship looking submarines attached to a string. Everything about the show is a cut above your standard kitsch. And perhaps that’s why it seemed that the show went largely under the radar during its short, sweet stint. But who’s to say that its quiet brilliance won’t one day be rediscovered by a more appreciative audience (unless, of course, future generations are too daft to even appreciate the concept of parody–or mannequin relationships become too common to see as humorous)?

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  1. Pingback: Audiences Are Spoiled Enough to Deserve Another Spoils of Babylon-esque Series, The Spoils Before Dying | Culled Culture

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