I’ve never tried to hold a smirk for over two hours. After watching Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele’s The Spoils Before Dying, however, I can say for sure that someone has attempted it. The experience of witnessing this attempt oscillates between being surprisingly delightful and, as expected, insipid.
Like other Spoils before it, Before Dying has lassoed a talented A-list cast to perform a single piece of sketch comedy, bloated into six 21-minute episodes and punctuated by an audience chuckle every six-or-so minutes. Here, Will Ferrell reprises his role as Eric Jonrosh — the wine-and-time-marinated fictional author also behind The Spoils of Babylon who reluctantly (for he’d rather digress about steak dinners and tripping: “creatively speaking it was like kicking open a locked door in a unicorn’s eye and discovering a meadow of sexual daisies”) gives the miniseries its framework, explaining that he made it in the ’50s, and interjecting at times to defend certain questionable directorial decisions. Maya Rudolph plays Fresno Foxglove, the predominantly dead, on-again-off-again sex bud (fear not, it’s mostly “off-again” after the death) of jazz-pianist protagonist Rock Banyon (The Wire and Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael K. Williams, in the one role that, despite his “cool” monotone, resembles a human). After Fresno’s murder, Rock runs back into the drunkenly wobbly arms of his ex, Dolores DeWinter (Kristen Wiig).
Rock is suspected by the police of Fresno’s murder, along with that of a certain businessman named Stygamiun, and has been given three days to clear his name by finding the scoundrel who actually committed the murder. So begins a low-budget journey through the underbelly of a very unreliable author’s portrait of ’50s America (one supposedly filmed in France) — a world recovering from WWII and teeming with suspicion, a world of escaped Nazis, a burgeoning but highly oppressed homosexual community, a corrupt director of the FBI, deplorable cuisine… and jaaazzzzzz.
The first episodes offer up the easy glee of seeing the can-do-no-wrong-even-when-they’re-doing-wrong Wiig and Rudolph perform jazz numbers (which themselves aren’t even particularly funny) — with Wiig launching into throat somersaults around the words “booze” and “pills” and Rudolph vocally channeling a sexy frog. Overall, the show’s parody of the ways noir visuals and jazz colluded, onscreen, to weave absurdly serpentine stories of betrayal works — but it seems like a lot of screen time for something that can be noted in one sentence. With the likes of recent spoof misses such as They Came Together and Wiig and Ferrell’s Lifetime movie parody (whose airing on Lifetime itself was the crux of its completely flimsy concept) A Deadly Adoption, it’s become quite clear that taking the structures of laughably bad films and essentially doodling in the margins isn’t quite sustainable.
Asked about the angle of the spoof in a recent interview, Wiig said:
It’s hard to be specific about the style, though, because it’s made up of a combination of so many things… It is a very weird world, but that also means you kind of can’t go wrong. That’s what I love about it — it’s obviously not based in reality.
Here, she accidentally hits on the series’ strength and its downfall. More often than not, the apexes of absurdity — which abandon plot entirely — are the most riveting parts of the series. Plenty of individual bits land impeccably. For example: Spoils gives us visual representations of Jonrosh’s ignorance of jazz slang (characters refer to one another as “cats” until, eventually, a talking cat appears); Dolores DeWinter’s fiasco of a “chocolate banana cake” recipe; a vividly faux-censored cartoon sex scene; and cameos by Kate McKinnon and Michael Sheen, respectively spoofing the old archetypes of the nearly post-verbal floozy and the neurotic, cunning “homo-sexual.” McKinnon and Sheen both master the art of the caricature — of another caricature. Like the miniature models Jonrosh uses for SFX, they depict with surprising clarity the many degrees by which reality has been transmogrified into this simulated, spoof world.
These moments are so good, though, that they make the sweeping (and sweepingly irrelevant) plot seem like a waste of time, and make you long for more raucous, nonsensical humor. In this sense, Piedmont and Steele seem to have set themselves up for difficulty: to spoof noir, you pretty much have to incorporate a trademark labyrinthine plot, but the very nature of spoof negates the emotional drive of plot.
There’s a sense that if Piedmont and Steele decided to “spoil” us with another Spoils, we’d start to see the emergence of a fascinatingly warped vision of American history as it’s been re-imagined through C-movies, then re-imagined through Piedmont and Steele’s imagination of C-movies. Their kitschy dioramas are conceptually interesting for this reason, in that they get their fuel from the ways our society can — for the cheapest possible price — glamorize and dramatize itself. But, as is often the case with any good old kitschy diorama, there’s a sense that they’re not truly intended to be occupied.