Nobody appeared to be clamoring for a follow-up to “The Spoils of Babylon,” but how often does IFC get the opportunity to feature Will Ferrell and a lot of his famous pals for three hours? Enter “The Spoils Before Dying,” another six-part sendup courtesy of Ferrell’s Funny or Die banner that the channel will air over successive nights. A slightly more polished product than its predecessor, which lampooned vintage miniseries, this one is more of a noir-ish thriller, once again featuring Ferrell’s pompous, bloated novelist-turned-filmmaker Eric Jonrosh as tour guide through an uneven homage to showbiz in the bad old days.
What makes these latest “Spoils” more watchable, or at least more interesting, is the casting of Michael Kenneth Williams (“The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire”) in the central role, bringing all that glowering intensity to the service of something completely silly. That Williams plays it almost entirely straight while his co-stars ham it up around him doesn’t entirely work, but it at least provides a bit of foundation to hang something remotely resembling a story around.
As usual, Ferrell’s Jonrosh gulps wine and recounts his glory days in intros to each of the six half-hour episodes that clearly seem to have been culled together from one improv session. Frankly, after his Lifetime movie “A Deadly Adoption” and now this, one sort of wishes he’d devote his time to making something overtly funny and ditching the arched eyebrow, but it’s pretty obvious nobody at IFC was going to look a gift movie star in the mouth.
The plot, such as it is, casts Williams as Rock Banyon, a jazz musician who instantly becomes a suspect when his singer/one-time girlfriend Fresno Foxglove (Maya Rudolph) turns up dead. The cops give Rock three days (after some haggling) to try to clear his name, which leads him on a trail of dead bodies, a conspiracy involving closeted homosexuals, and back into the arms of a former paramour, Delores (Kristen Wiig), who, like Rudolph, gets to wear funky outfits and sing bluesy numbers.
Directed by Matt Piedmont from a script he wrote with Andrew Steele, “The Spoils Before Dying” reprises all the familiar cheap-TV gags, from horrible green screens and model work to shadows that don’t quite match up during a fight scene to the heavy product placement throughout for cut-rate products. (That last element, frankly, is more prevalent today, but at this stage, why split hairs?)
There are, admittedly, some funny bits strewn throughout – Michael Sheen delivers one of the better moments – but even at a little over two hours of actual screen time minus commercials, this feels as padded as Ferrell’s well-stuffed wardrobe. And when Jonrosh dismisses the audience at one point (“Most of you are idiots anyway”) and later congratulates them at the outset of part six by saying, “You made it,” well, it’s hard not to slightly agree with him.
Ultimately, these limited series highlight the tricky proposition of expanding parody from sketch or Web-video length to something more substantial — think Mel Brooks’ genre-spoofing movies, or “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” — and how that tends to create a gap between being genuinely funny in that guise and merely quirky. If that sounds somewhat harsh given that “Spoils Before Dying” isn’t bad, when you name a company Funny or Die, to quote Super Chicken, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it.