Michael K. Williams and Kristen Wiig (Giles Dunning/IFC)

Eric Jonrosh (Will Farrell), the author, producer, director, composer, and host of The Spoils Before Dying, dwells in excess. Whether he’s bellowing for a glass of his contractually promised wine while a full glass sits next to him on the table or stuffing bites of hamburger down his gullet as he introduces his long-ignored masterwork, Jonrosh is a creature of immoderation.

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That excess extends to his storytelling, both in-story and out. As the chronicler of The Spoils Before Dying, Jonrosh spills over with secrets from the private lives of his actors, especially the “filthy mouth and compulsive infidelities” of his former lover (Kristen Wiig as actress Laureighya Samcake playing jazz singer Delores DeWinter).

The nesting in that description, with a contemporary comic actor playing a mid-century actor playing a jazz singer, conveys a sense of the layering at work here. It’s a show about an infirm egomaniac introducing the vanity project he helmed a half-century ago, eking out all the personal and commercial advantages he could, both then and now, and airing personal grievances as a privilege of his hosting duties.

In the “filmitization” The Spoils Before Dying presented within the television show The Spoils Before Dying (are you with me so far?), jazz pianist Rock Banyon (Michael Kenneth Williams as actor Lincoln Washington) gets hauled downtown as a suspect in the murder of his singer and lover, Fresno Foxglove (deep breath now: That’s Maya Rudolph as Martha Robinson playing Fresno, with Rudolph also voicing Robinson’s singing, which is credited in-story to Odetta Jameson), also known as The Topanga Songbird.

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“‘Downtown’ was cheapo police talk for the police station,” Rock narrates helpfully. That’s the level of savvy Jonrosh expects in the audience because that’s the level of savvy he has. As Dennis Perkins points out in his overview of the miniseries, Eric Jonrosh’s combination of grotesque incompetence and monomaniacal oversight is essential to the sustained joke that is The Spoils Before Dying, just as it was for The Spoils Of Babylon. A half-century ago, he wrote a book and produced a film about a subculture of which he has only the vaguest knowledge, presuming that his undervalued genius would carry the story. It doesn’t.

That’s the whole joke, and it’s a lot to hang six episodes on, but if the rest of the series lives up to the first two episodes, The Spoils Before Dying could be more successful than The Spoils Of Babylon, based on one simple mismatch of author and protagonist: Rock Banyon is streetwise and soulful; Eric Jonrosh is neither.

Rock Banyon (Michael Kenneth Williams), hauled downtown (Katrina Marcinowski/IFC)

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Turns out, after Fresno skipped out on Rock, she was found “shot full of holes like an acoustic ceiling tile made of Swiss cheese, run through the grater, only to make the holes more porous than the cheese itself.” It’s Sidney Sheldon by way of Raymond Chandler, if Raymond Chandler were a lot worse and Sidney Sheldon were… well, this is no time for insults, a woman’s been murdered.

It isn’t just Fresno’s death that has the police knocking on Rock’s door. “No one gives a Norman Mailer flying fug about Fresno Foxglove,” Detective Kermit Biggs (Marc Evan Jackson, and with these secondary characters, it’s not practical or even possible to keep track of the fictional mid-century actor played by the contemporary actor, and phew, that’s a relief) tells Rock. Fresno was murdered alongside bigwig scientist Wilbur Stygamian, and the cops finger Rock for both killings. After they sweat him a while, they give the pianist three days of freedom to dig into the murders and clear his name.

Is it a set up? Of course it is. When ain’t it a set-up? The coppers (Jonrosh annotates, “that’s what we called officers of the law back then”) have been told to stop poking into Stygamian’s past, so they put Rock on the hot seat, hoping he’ll dig up the dirt they’re forbidden to dig. And if there’s one thing Rock Banyon does, it’s dig, you dig? Yeah, you dig.

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Rock takes off for Mexico City, an unconvincing miniature of him riding a motorbike through a tiny landscape, to lay low for a while—and in the elastic reality of The Spoils Before Dying, “a while” means a night—bedding down with his old flame, the dipsomaniac jazz chanteuse Delores DeWinter (remember, that’s Kristen Wiig), who’s crooning about her love of booze and pills, pills and booze, at The Club Jaz-Tec.

Even in Actual Mexico City (as one character identifies the location, and as the caption describes this Hollywood backlot street dressed up with piñatas and saddle blankets), Rock can’t escape scrutiny. He’s tracked down by Salizar Vasquez St. Germaine Vasquez Deleon (Chin Han). Chin Han’s casting as an effete Mexico City gangster, especially given Deleon’s imprecise, vaguely European accent that lists sometimes Romanian, sometimes Italian, sometimes Spanish, sometimes French, is a play on the old studio practice of casting any ol’ actor of any ol’ ethnicity (or just Anthony Quinn with a suntan) as a mysterious foreigner.

The whole show (film? show? miniseries!) is spiked with amusing accents and impeccably cast characters. Beatrice (Bérénice Marlohe), the bartender serving up hard drinks at The Swingyard, swings from French to German and back again in the course of a conversation. Haley Joel Osment deserves singling out as Alistair St. Barnaby-Bixby-Jones, Rock’s agent. He’s a dapper British hustler with a ridiculous accent—not quite in the Dick Van Dyke tradition, but still very unconvincing—given to busting out such sobriquets as “old chap chapperson!” and “oldest of old beans!” He looks like he’s having a blast, and his energy is effervescent, giving the darkness of even the flimsy, phony noir a lift.

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Michael Kenneth Williams, Maya Rudolph (Katrina Marcinowski/IFC)

Rudolph and Wiig rock between serious and goofy. Rudolph’s mournful opening as she drawls out “The Theme To The Spoils Before Dying,” contrasts with Fresno’s broad post-mortem mugging and labored wails of doom. As the high-strung Delores, Wiig fluctuates between a deadpan portrayal that heightens the incongruity of her deeply silly lines and a showily comic fretful flailing that is paradoxically much less funny.

Michael Kenneth Williams anchors the whole spectacle—and spectacle is the word here—playing his part almost entirely straight. With long, intense gazes and an exaggerated growl, he delivers a charismatic performance that sells even the muddled claptrap of Jonrosh’s script and the occasional long-winded product placement. For example:

“Instead I dove soul-first into a bottle of Bagpipes O’Toole brand vodka-flavored Scotch and attacked the ivories like I always do. I went looking for that uncertain thing that answers all uncertainty, hidden somewhere in the notes on the piano, because I’m a jazz musician, and all answers are hidden on those 88 keys.

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“Because I’m a jazz musician” is a thought The Spoils Before Dying echoes over and over in different words, because Eric Jonrosh doesn’t know how to communicate the identity except in naked declaration. The cops (coppers—that’s what we call them back now) slightingly address him as jazzbo, jazzman, and swinger. Rock takes refuge behind the piano keys, seeking a peace he can’t articulate—not because it’s ineffable, but because the author who created him has no sense of his outer life, much less his inner life.

Jonrosh doesn’t even understand how time and geography work. When Rock hightails it out of Actual Mexico City with Delores and his new cat, Dizzy, (a mannequin and a stuffed animal, respectively) perched atop his motorbike’s engines, they plan to go underground and see the world—and the montage of maps and stock footage of exotic locales suggests they do, from Hawaii to Alaska to Sydney… a lot of places that are tough to reach on a motorbike, and even tougher to travel to in the single day before he decides to head back to L.A. to prove his innocence.

The only thing that rings authentic in this narrative is the soul-first dive into booze and pills that Rock and Delores mention at every opportunity, and no wonder. The introductory credits (designed by Jonrosh) list both Pillex Drugs, provider of on-set pharmaceuticals, and Dr. Glen Urquhart, “M.D.,” special medical consultant to Eric Jonrosh.

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This is a script, and a performance, balanced on a knife’s edge, and it’s hilarious and occasionally riveting to see Williams pull it off so seamlessly, even as he descends into slapstick like the poorly Foleyed alleyway fight with Deleon, where their putative shadows throw entirely unrelated punches behind them—and even if the slapstick around him sometimes fails to land. “Perfect should never get in the way of good,” Jonrosh tells us as he signs off after the second episode, reminiscing not over the amateurish project he’s so proud of, but over a meal of magnificent onion rings and lousy chops. And in The Spoils Before Dying, it never does.

Stray observations

  • Biggs and Donwelly threaten Rock with the death penalty: “The next time you black out, it might be permanent.” “A first-class dirt nap.” “A free ride in the pine box derby.” “Yeah, you’ll get a… a… be dead! Sorry, don’t have it.” Marc Evan Jackson and Steve Tom have fantastic chemistry and even better timing.
  • When a fetchingly dressed morgue attendant breezes through to drop off Stygamian’s effects, Gary (Tim Meadows, whose repertoire of chuckling functionaries always tickles me) says, “Thanks, Beatrice.” On my small screen, it’s hard to tell; is that the same Beatrice who tends bar at The Swingyard?
  • Rock reserves his vehemence not for the police railroading him on a double homicide, not for the lingering fear that maybe he did kill Fresno in his blackout, but for his refusal to deliver the jazz with strings album his agent has his heart set on.
  • “I’m dead, Rock. Although there’s a chance that I’m not and will turn up somewhere in an interesting plot twist later on, still very much alive.” Rock viewing Fresno’s corpse undermines that possibility, or it would in a work with any internal logic, which this is not.
  • “You called it initially a chocolate banana cake.” “Yes, that was my intention.” A chocolate banana cake with no banana and with motor oil instead of chocolate is a richly appropriate metaphor for a hep jazzland crime tale dreamed up by a pompous auteur coasting on his own self-regard.
  • “Razor clams!”

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