Tuesday, September 1, 2015

TV Comedy Noir Watch: The Spoils Before Dying (2015)

I am absolutely flabbergasted that the 2014 IFC mini-series The Spoils of Babylon is not more widely discussed.  It had an all-star cast, a distinctive narrative and visual style and did something most comedy utterly fails to do - continue to tell a story that's still sort of interesting as the thing goes along.

The 2015 follow up is The Spoils Before Dying.

Now, follow me here.

Both series are framed by introductions of each episode by author, screenwriter, producer, director Eric Jonrosh.  Jonrosh was the sort of high-literary figure of the 20th century that's since been kind of forgotten as Fifty Shades of Grey has come to define the modern American novel.   Jonrosh also embodies the worst excesses of the brightest minds of the 20th Century and their more, uh, colorful golden years.  And is played by Will Ferrell in a beard, old age make-up and about 150 extra pounds.

this is not actually me, your humble blogger, but I understand the confusion

The Spoils Before Dying is less the sprawling 1970's-era TV mini-series than its predecessor and, in a tale unrelated to the prior series, a noir-jazz-Mickey Spillane mash-up pastiche.  Again, the story itself would probably be fine as a drama, played straight.  I'm not kidding.  It's a tight little murder mystery with Chandler-esque turns and a nice upping of the ante in the final act.

But that's not really so much what they're up to.

To me, trying to explain why a joke works is like trying to describe a color to your dog.  Both end with the recipient of the information chewing on their butt and ignoring you.

Suffice it to say, the 6 episode series does pretty darn well mostly by setting up an environment where actors, both comedic and dramatic, are given a chance to kind of do whatever it is they want within the context of their characters.  Kristen Wiig was a co-star of the last series, and it's interesting to see her work when there are, apparently, no rails on her.  This series brings in Maya Rudolph, someone who knows how to work a character and dialog like no one's business.

The last series' lead was played by Tobey Maguire, a guy who tends to do dramatic roles but who clearly has a pretty good sense of humor.  Here we get Michael Kenneth Williams, most famous for his gritty role in The Wire and more recently on Boardwalk Empire.  Here, he's a jazzman asked to solve the murder of a friend, a jazz singer and sometimes lover, Rudolph's "Fresno Foxglove".  We also get Peter Coyote playing the voice of his cat.  Tim Robbins cameos as a bartender, Tim Meadows in fine form as a coroner, and if you were wondering where Haley Joel Osmont went...  well, here he is!  With a super dodgy English accent.

And that's just to name a few.

I'm not one of those guys who considers himself a connoisseur of comedy.  But I do like what's going on right now.  Whatever is happening in production has made it inexpensive enough that they can shoot something like this and it's all sort of under the radar.  It's all these big names just coming to play at the playground, and if it doesn't all work... that's okay!  It works well enough.  It doesn't have that sit-com feel nor the cardboard sets of a period gangster piece from 20-30 years ago like Johnny Dangerously.  They're doing what they're doing and if the audience comes along, great!  If not, they'll go make another big-screen movie and live on that for a while.

Anyhow, I really dug it.  But you need IFC to catch it right now.  So wait for it to hit Netflix, I guess.  The Spoils of Babylon is up there now.

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