TV review: 'Spoils of Babylon' a campy hoot

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Inspired silliness and send-ups of TV conventions are the hallmarks of IFC's "Spoils of Babylon" (10 p.m. Thursday), a star-studded comedy that masquerades as a never-released early 1980s miniseries as introduced by an Orson Welles-like impresario, Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell).

A comedy miniseries hasn't really been attempted since the 1986 Carol Burnett-starring CBS flop "Fresno," a parody of "Dallas" and the like. But "Fresno" aired in the requisite two-hour installments; "Spoils of Babylon" runs just 30 minutes each week for six weeks.

'Spoils of Babylon'
When: 10 p.m. Thursday,  IFC.
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Will Ferrell.

"Fresno" was a more straight-up parody of nighttime soaps; "Spoils" targets the more niche miniseries and does so with a meta flair that will be most appreciated by avid media consumers.

Seated in an empty restaurant with two or three glasses of wine at the ready, Jonrosh opens and closes each episode, explaining that he financed production of "Spoils of Babylon," based on his novel of the same name, in the late 1970s. But the resulting 22-hour production was too long for TV, and so it was never released until now with this new, shorter version.

The story begins in West Texas in 1931 as patriarch Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins) takes in Devon (Tobey Maguire), who falls into and out of a relationship with his non-blood relative sister (Kristen Wiig) over the next five decades.

In the two episodes made available for review, "Spoils" offers a treasure trove of "Airplane"-style humor. Jonas says he intends to "extrapolate" oil, prompting his daughter to note, "I don't think you're using that word properly."

In another scene, Jonas gives Devon a small compass with a multi-paragraph inscription that he reads to him. It goes on and on with the comedy building as the long-winded recitation continues.

The special effects in "Spoils" are intentionally awful -- you can see the strings on model planes during a World War II dogfight sequence in episode two -- and there are loads of background gags. Attentive viewers may catch funny signs in scenes, including one that reads "Welcome home Darin!" when Devon returns from the war with a new love interest, played by a mannequin voiced by Carey Mulligan. (Mr. Maguire even gets a love scene with the mannequin that's both campy and slightly disturbing.)

A Funny or Die production, "Spoils of Babylon" episodes will also feature Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer, Haley Joel Osment, Michael Sheen and David Spade. If the first two installments are any indication, "Spoils of Babylon" will be a short-lived but entertaining hoot, an ideal addition to the IFC "Always On. Slightly Off" comedy brand that includes "Portlandia," "The Birthday Boys" and "Maron."

TV writer Rob Owen: or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

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