Television has become a home for just about any vision in its golden age. With the proliferation of original content creators spanning channels, online entities and various new distribution models and each one looking for a breakout program (if not a brand identity), there has been some really weird stuff on — and off — TV of late. It would be hard to find a stranger addition to the comedy genre than last year’s “The Spoils of Babylon,” and its sequel doesn’t go any more quietly into the night. “The Spoils Before Dying” is oddball entertainment if not at its finest, than at least at its most appealingly weird.
Another tale in the fictional series of fictional author Eric Jonrash (Will Ferrell, so figuratively everywhere these days it feels literal), “The Spoils Before Dying” tells the story of one Rock Banyon (Michael Kenneth Williams of “The Wire,” “Gone Baby Gone” and “12 Years a Slave” fame), a jazz musician-turned-prime suspect in the murder of his former lover, Fresno Foxglove (Maya Rudolph). The cops give him three days (total) to clear his name, leading Banyon to discover an intricate conspiracy involving a vast array of colorful personalities on his border-crossing quest.
The six-part, three-hour comedy/noir has its fair share of appeals, starting with its star, Michael Kenneth Williams. The actor every self-respecting TV fan knows as Omar isn’t slowing down after ending his run on “Boardwalk Empire” a year ago. Just a month back he wowed HBO audiences in “Bessie” opposite Queen Latifah, arguably stealing her spotlight with his complex portrayal of a ruthless protector, aggressive lover and tender soul. Now he’s handling one of his rare comedy roles with vigor. Williams may not be a one-man show when it comes to cracking jokes, but he has spot-on comic timing and an understanding of his surroundings many comedians would envy. He’s very much in on the joke; not merely a straight-man for the rest of the cast to play off.
And play they do. Wiig returns to the series that snagged her a surprise Emmy nomination in 2014, this time adding the awards-grabbing attribute of song to her impressive repertoire. She makes a perfect partner for Williams, as the bold comedy star brings a controlled buffoonery to their scenes that helps sell some of his more subtle (and outlandish) actions. Wiig’s “Bridesmaids” and “SNL” co-star Maya Rudolph joins the party, as well, nailing her few but challenging scenes. Marc Evan Jackson and Steve Tom make for a perfect pair of police detectives, bouncing back and forth from intimidation tactics to passive practicality with an apt nod to the era being satirized. Only Haley Joel Osment, as an overtly British music manager, doesn’t really add anything to the cast dynamic, though he’s hardly a glaring blemish on this ideal ensemble.
Even with such strong voices being showcased throughout, the story’s execution is reflective of Ferrell’s sense of humor. “The Spoils Before Dying” is bookended by the popular comedian introducing and closing out each episode as the late-in-life Orson Welles-like auteur Eric Jonrash. Even heavier this time around — perhaps a visual pun for being even more full of himself — Ferrell’s Jonrash is half of an impersonation; too often does he slip from the drunken, senile old coot spouting intended wisdom (a character not wholly unique to Ferrell’s canon, but fresh enough) into the obnoxiously loud blowhard we all can only identify in 2015 as Ferrell’s go-to source for improv’d comedy. The ex-“SNL” performer fairs much better as a character within the story itself, rather than one telling it (when he’s called upon to remain in the moment instead of riffing on whatever whim strikes him). But overall, “The Spoils Before Dying” comes off like a shotgun blast rather than a sniper rifle, and that’s a bit of an issue for satire.
While it couldn’t be argued that the vast array of jokes, both visual and verbal, bring down the miniseries altogether — too many of its unexpected and disconnected jokes hit for them to be dismissed altogether — it does fare better when working to satirize the ’50s noir story it’s telling, instead of randomly spoofing whatever is stumbled upon along the way. Kate McKinnon, for example, steals an entire episode with a brief scene as a dame who’s slept with so many musicians she’s become a human Rolodex for jazz-related inquiries. Her exaggerated strung-out groupie is so dependent on her addiction we’re not sure if she’s also using “booze and pills” — oft-spoofed substances Wiig sings a song about — or if she’s merely strung out on sex.
Satire like this works best when it’s focused, like McKinnon’s character is on finding a lover. Meanwhile, Ferrell’s scenes as Jonrash are often taken over by random, disconnected desires, like an obsession over wine or yelling at someone who isn’t there. His mystery-cloaked Lifetime movie with Kristen Wiig, “A Deadly Adoption” (which was penned by one of the real writers behind “Spoils”) suffered similar problems, as most people complained it was too straightforward to be parody and too dumb to be taken seriously. “The Spoils Before Dying” is a huge step up, arguably even better than its predecessor, but it could have shed some of the weight and become truly great. Instead, it’s another entry in the ever-growing television landscape that should stand out for its oddities, but won’t break out for better reasons.
“The Spoils Before Dying” airs this week Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 9pm on IFC.