The word ‘miniseries’ is a misnomer. These plus-size chunks of prime-time television approach every element of production in the most maximal way possible. They are long, they are populous, and their excessive budgets could fund revolutions. Now, with The Spoils of Babylon, this time-honored TV genre is getting the spoof it so richly deserves, one that emphasizes sprawl above all else.
The writing and directing team of Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele are used to working in a medium perhaps more befitting the “mini-“ prefix. The two are battle-hardened veterans of sketch comedy, hailing from premium venues like Saturday Night Live and HBO’s Funny or Die Presents. Although they’d expanded into movies with the 2012 Español Western, Casa de Mi Padre, starring Will Ferrell, apparently this level of expansion was not satisfactory.
“Sketch is a quick medium and you have to be pretty fast. Doing a miniseries gives us a chance to stretch out and see how far we can take things,” Steele says. “I’m going to guess that a lot of people will say we took it too far.”
After finishing work on the second season of Funny Or Die Presents, the two started thinking about making a miniseries. They wanted to do something in a similar vein to the classics they grew up on, big-ticket events like The Thorn Birds and The Winds of War–the kind that were more or less universally viewed at the time they aired, partly due to a lack of options. Piedmont and Steele had worked with Ferrell on the HBO show, and they were about to work with him again on Casa, so they approached him about the miniseries idea as well. The comedic superstar agreed, thus insuring the road to production would be a bit smoother.
It’s easy to see why Piedmont and Steele set their sights on old-style miniseries as a target of ridicule. Although perfectly acceptable at face value in their late-‘70s/early-‘80s heyday, these volcanic eruptions of melodrama feel inherently ridiculous now. The outsize scope of stories that span generations, megawatt marquee casts, the high drama–not to mention the prestige factor of being based on best-selling important novels, as these programs often were–all of it was intended to bombard the audience with spectacle. These miniseries elements are so ripe for parody, in fact, they practically function as parody already.
“The line between the real thing and parody is an imaginary line that we cross and sometimes don’t cross and redraw,” says Piedmont. “If you strip out everything that’s funny, Spoils of Babylon could probably exist as its own piece of melodrama with no comment on it.” Adds Steele, “We’ve worked in comedy for way too long and so we don’t particularly love standard jokes. If you watch all six episodes, you see that we come dangerously close to no humor whatsoever.”
For starters, the look of Babylon is modeled after the perhaps excessive style of The Thorn Birds and its ilk, which tended to film with anamorphic lenses for extra-cinematic wideness. Piedmont and Steele went even further with their frame, shooting in a 2.35:1 cinemascope ratio. The pair draws attention to how ostentatious their project looks as the opening credits begin, with a title card that mentions the use of “Breath-take-o-scope 93 mm.”
Before the credits even appear, however, each episode has an abrupt injection of laughs, courtesy of ace-in-the-hole Will Ferrell as the author of the book this feature is based on. In keeping with the overwrought nature of the whole series, it was important that Spoils of Babylon be based on a phonebook-sized fake book, like Shogun and Roots. Ferrell plays Eric Jonrosh, the bloated, haggard author of Babylon, who telegraphs the miniseries’ eventness by introducing the episodes himself.
Ferrell is by no means the only A-lister attached to the production, however. Babylon boasts a cast befitting the almost comedically overstuffed rosters of the old shows, a sprawling ensemble that includes Tobey Maguire, Kristen Wiig, Tim Robbins, Jessica Alba, and Carey Mulligan. The new miniseries pays tribute to how proud its forebears were of their assemblage of stars, with a lengthy opening sequence featuring a gloriously cheesy song from legendary lounge singer Steve Lawrence.
At one point, this opening homage to the cast was set to be even grander. “We wanted to have the first episode just be 22 minutes of credits,” Piedmont says, “but we pulled back on that.” Adds Steele, “We got afraid of our own idea.”
Such an exaggeration would likely have aptly prepared viewers for the style of humor to come, though. While the satire of Babylon is played rather close to straight, occasionally it’s also garnished with random bits of overkill that are meant to test the viewer’s patience. In one scene, for instance, Tobey Maguire’s character finds an inscription on a compass that, when read aloud, goes on for something like two script-pages. In another scene, after a character wakes up from a fainting spell to find a plate of food in front of her, the tray is about 20 feet long, surveyed in a leisurely track shot for 45 seconds.
Working in a longer format affords Piedmont and Steele the luxury of making jokes like these, along with harkening back to the Douglas Sirk melodrama of their youthful viewing habits, and the pair is nothing if not grateful for the opportunity.
“Coming from a sketch background, you get impatient playing it straight for long stretches,” says Steele. “You want something to happen every three sentences or so of a sketch, so we had some of that impatience while we were filming this epic thing. It feels like we’re almost wasting the viewer’s time.”
The writer thinks about what he’s said for a moment and amends it. “We may have made Spoils sound like an exercise in boredom, which it isn’t. We just like playing around on the edges of boredom.”