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TV Review: ‘The Spoils of Babylon’

Funny Or Die's spoof of vintage miniseries is a tad inside baseball, but still yields some laughs

Cast:

Jessica Alba, Will Ferrell, Jellybean Howie, Val Kilmer, Tobey Maguire, Haley Joel Osment, Tim Robbins, Michael Sheen, Steve Tom, Kristen Wiig

Feeling a bit like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch stretched and inflated, “Spoils of Babylon” is still a pretty entertaining spoof, provided that much of the audience (and perhaps especially, the targeted younger crowd) has any idea what it’s spoofing. A product of the Funny or Die factory, this half-hour series is ostensibly a presentation of a lost ’70s miniseries based on a bloated novel, with Will Ferrell buried under Grizzly Adams makeup as the pompous James Lipton-like auteur, setting up each week’s installment. Boasting surprisingly big names, in this case, to the silly goes the “Spoils.”

Ferrell’s Eric Jonrosh didn’t just write the mythical book on which “Spoils of Babylon” is based but, as the overblown credits make clear, wrote, produced, directed and financed the miniseries (a whopping 22 hours in its original cut, we’re told), in addition to casting his wife in a key role.

The story itself is pure schmaltz, naturally, with Devon (Tobey Maguire) adopted by a kindly farmer (Tim Robbins) and raised with a sister (Kristen Wiig), who keeps reminding him of her unbridled passion and how they are not really blood kin.

Of course, fabulous, “Giant”-type riches courtesy of the Texas oil fields will follow, as well as oodles of melodrama and corporate intrigue. Meanwhile, Steve Lawrence sings the opening theme, and all the outdoor scenes – like cars driving across the countryside – are realized using what are obviously little Hot Wheels-like miniatures.

At six half-hours (two will air back-to-back to launch the show), “Spoils of Babylon” smartly doesn’t overstay its welcome. Still, in the pantheon of vintage TV miniseries, it’s a satire of programs few will likely remember – not the big hits like “The Thorn Birds,” mind you, but the highly disposable (in hindsight, certainly) programmers like “79 Park Avenue” or “Centennial.”

The question is whether the sought-after audience will be able to fully appreciate the gags stripped of that context – particularly if those titles evoke little more than a blank stare.

IFC often seems to be getting by with programming on the cheap, but this effort rather niftily skates past that issue, since looking like a high-school production is ostensibly part of “Spoils of Babylon’s” charm. At the same time,  there’s something amusingly ironic about attracting talent like Maguire, Jessica Alba and Michael Sheen, whose agents otherwise wouldn’t let them be caught dead in these cut-rate environs.

The casting should be a modest draw, though again, the nature of the exercise feels better suited to Web shorts than even half-hour episodes. That said, the show is fitfully funny, and while perhaps unworthy of Jonrosh’s full daylong opus, as ways of idly killing time go, hey, it beats dying.

TV Review: 'The Spoils of Babylon'

(Series; IFC, Thurs. Jan. 9, 10 p.m.)

Production:

Produced by Funny or Die.

Crew:

Executive producers, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Matt Piedmont, Andrew Steele, Nate Young; director, Piedmont; writers, Steele, Piedmont; editor, David Trachtenberg. 30 MIN.

Cast:

Jessica Alba, Will Ferrell, Jellybean Howie, Val Kilmer, Tobey Maguire, Haley Joel Osment, Tim Robbins, Michael Sheen, Steve Tom, Kristen Wiig

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