UK TV review: The Spoils Before Dying
James R | On 20, Aug 2015
Like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace? Love jazz? Then you should try The Spoils Before Dying, the hot new jazz noir detective show nobody’s talking about.
Why is nobody talking about it? That’s partly because the show is broadcast at 10.30pm on a Thursday night on FOX UK – slap bang in the middle of the channel’s comedy hour, but far from a prime time slot. And partly because, well, it doesn’t actually exist: the whole thing is a spoof cooked up by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and SNL writers Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele. And it scats all the way to 11.
Even if The Spoils before Dying did exist, though, Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell) – the “author” of the original book – is well aware that it wouldn’t be very successful: the bearded old man introduces every episode while downing booze from his chair and trying to sneak in product placements for cigarettes. That’s all the Ferrell you’re getting, though, as the actor is kept away from the main event. It’s good news for those who find his schtick has worn a little thin over the years (the framing device is the weakest part of the programme), but bad news for the overall show: while Darkplace used its narrators to cut to and from the action, accentuating just how silly it was, The Spoils Before Dying dives right in, never quite capturing the absurdity needed to make it a comedy classic.
On the plus side, though, the absence of Ferrell means that the rest of the cast have a chance to shine. And what a cast it is: after 2014’s The Spoils of Babylon, the ensemble has mostly reunited for this follow-up miniseries, with everyone from Michael Sheen and Val Kilmer to Kristen Wiig and Haley Joel Osment playing a part.
At the centre is Michael Kenneth Williams as Rock Banyon, a jazz pianist who turns private eye to clear his name of a murder accusation. The Wire veteran growls his way through the dialogue like a dog doing an impression of Tom Waits – a perfectly deadpan eye of the storm around which the chaos can fly. The rest of the band are equally in tune, as Sheen’s camp know-it-all drags on fags and sips at drinks with an overly menacing stare. Kristen Wiig, though, drowns everyone out with her hilarious turn as Delores O’Dell, a singer with a femme fatale air and a love of prescribed medication. “Can I get some booze and pills?” is her signature number, a song that mostly consists of that line being sung over and over until she gets one or the other.
It’s in these little touches (usually when Wiig’s on screen) that director Piedmont finds his rhythm, pouring the period pastiche all over the frame like it’s on tap. Crucial plot twists are driven by whether someone was playing an alto or a tenor sax, while even the credits are deliberately daft (on set pharmaceuticals were provided by PILLEX DRUGS, we learn at one point). There’s an irresistible charm to the enforced zaniness, a commitment to packing the screen with as many gags as possible that harks back to the days of Airplane! and The Naked Gun. But, of course, this is neither of those classics: the risk of such scatter-gun humour is that only some of it hits the target, especially when extending what is essentially a sketch to a full series.
20-minute episodes keep things tightly paced enough to cover the gaps (Darkplace, with its longer runtime, was far sharper in its execution) and, as the show builds up its non-existent complex plot, and more cast members get to chew their own slice of scenery, The Spoils Before Dying manages to blurt out a catchy tune. Like improvised jazz, though, it often skips a beat. For the squares in the audience, that’s the cue to run away, ears covered. For Ferrell fans, they’ll be too busy tapping their toes to notice.
The Spoils Before Dying is on Thursday nights at 10.30 on FOX UK. Don’t have pay-TV? You can stream it live or catch up on-demand on NOW, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. Sign up before 27th September and you can try your first month for £1.