Remember when one of the big, big deals on primetime TV was the mini-series? Back when they first started, we were captivated by these serialized soap-opera-esque epics, these melodramatic cheesefests in which we could wallow in kitsch and gorge ourselves on the exaggerated antics of the immoral upper crust.
Names like "Rich Man, Poor Man", "The Winds of War", "The Thorn Birds", and "North and South"--as well as such weekly night-time soaps as "Dallas", "Dynasty", and "Falcon Crest"--still have the power to make us cringe as we recall the eye-rolling acting and sudsy storylines that assailed us once upon a time.
Now, stepping up to give such efforts their satirical due in a world of SCARY MOVIE and other such genre-deflating spoofs is IFC's mock mini-series THE SPOILS OF BABYLON (2014). This six-episode saga is to its target genre what "Police Squad!" was to cop shows and "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" was to regular soap operas, except for one key factor--it isn't all that funny.
In fact, this story of the Morehouse family--oil-rich patriarch Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins), ambitious daughter Cynthia (Kristen Wiig), and rebellious stepson Devon (Tobey Maguire), whom they found wandering along a dusty Texas road as a child--tries so hard to be deadpan funny while ladling on its curdled veneer of pseudo-sophistication that it tends toward the turgid.
One problem is that some of the leads aren't all that adept at this kind of comedy. Tobey Maguire, in particular, is out of his element doing straight-faced satire, especially when his character runs away from home and goes through a beatnik phase (this episode, done up like a black-and-white art film, is so far removed from the show's original premise that it seems to belong in a different series altogether).
Tim Robbins manages some laughs as Jonas, the millionaire with the heart of a humanitarian, but familiar castmembers such as Jessica Alba and Val Kilmer seem out of place. Kristen Wiig of "Saturday Night Live" and the first season of "The Joe Schmo Show" (I loved her as "Dr. Pat") does the best she can with the "Cynthia" character as she takes over the Morehouse empire and becomes the archetypal evil, scheming villainess who seethes with a forbidden and ultimately doomed love for stepbrother Devon.
Bookending each episode are introductory segments by the show's ostensible author, Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell, straining to be funny), a bloated, pretentious blowhard along the lines of the later Orson Welles.
Jonrosh identifies himself as "Author, Producer, Actor, Writer, Director, Raconteur, Bon Vivant, Legend, Fabulist, Birdwatcher" and boasts of how his magnum opus, which he wrote, produced, directed, financed, and guest-starred in, was done on 93MM film using a process known as "Breath-Take-O-Scope."
The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish. There are no extras.
Mildly amusing at times, THE SPOILS OF BABYLON tries everything including doubletalk dialogue, surrealism (Devon's new wife, Lady Anna, is played by an actual storefront mannequin), and sketch-level satire in the vein of "Mr. Show." To say that the constant throwaway gags and one-liners have a 50/50 success rate would be generous.