Michael K. Williams (Katrina Marcinowski/IFC)

“It took me one night to write my novel, The Spoils Before Dying,” Eric Jonrosh intones as he introduces the fourth episode. Maybe that’s why so little of the story—or even the timeline—makes sense.

In “Murder In B-Flat,” Detectives Biggs and Donwelly offered jazz pianist Rock Banyon three days—“Two days,” “Well, counting today,” “Three total, I guess?”—to close the case on the murder of sultry singer Fresno Foxglove and world-class scientist Wilbur Stygamian, and the clock is ticking on the jazzman. Since Monday morning, Rock has kited off to Actual Mexico City, toured the world with Delores DeWinter, come back to Los Angeles, performed on Artie Mann’s Jazz Party, contacted a member of L.A.’s hommo-sexual liberation movement, been accused of a third murder, and questioned several acquaintances of the dead men. And all by Friday morning.

Wait, but Friday is more than three days from Monday, so…? Forget it, kid. It’s Jonrosh town.

In “That’s Jazz,” Biggs and Donwelly haul Rock out to “the desert about halfway between here and Vegas”—or, um, an alleyway in the Hollywood backlot—to identify Ordell, his dead saxophonist. (It looks like the same alleyway Rock ran through as he fled Artie Mann’s studio, but maybe that can be chalked up to Jonrosh’s tight budget rather than tight plotting that hints at Rock’s guilt.) They stand around gesturing at “the middle of the desert,” threatening Rock with another murder charge, and the heat is on again. Still? Again.

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Rock (Michael Kenneth Williams), Biggs (Marc Evan Jackson) and Donwelly (Steve Tom) in the, um, desert (Katrina Marcinowski/IFC)

In his introduction to “That’s Jazz,” Jonrosh says, “It drags quite a bit and loses its pace,” then launches into a diatribe against lowbrow tastes and “a life made out of horseshit.” It’s an especially pathetic stance from a man whose masterwork is such a superficial riff, leaving the rich vein of the jazz world’s art and culture untapped, and who jams the film full of moneygrubbing product placement and even more blatant advertising interludes.

And he’s wrong. “That’s Jazz” and “Fear Steps In” are almost too good. These chapters—and they do feel like chapters—read like a straight-up hepcat mystery. Despite the director’s many contractual or would-be artistic interjections, most of the jokes are simple in-story sight gags, which is more sophisticated than it sounds—

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(You know what else is sophisticated? The cool, refreshing taste of Borgei French Like Cigarettes. Ah, that’s fresh.)

—like the weary-faced bartender of Another Bar (Molly Shannon) pouring an impossibly long double Scotch, or Stygamian’s supposed daughter (Emily Ratajkowski) leading Rock Banyon down twelve flights of stairs, then a long elevator ride to the -52nd floor of his house in the hills. Though the film (“filmitization”? show? miniseries! We covered this last time!) is larded with terrible effects and silly bits, it’s also full of beautifully executed, delicate pieces of set design that give it more heft than previews promised.

Rock’s appearance on Artie Mann’s Jazz Party is surprisingly artful, cutting from his in-studio performance, rich with warm tones of orange and the gleaming wood of the instruments, to its dull, gray rendering on black-and-white televisions as the show goes out live. It conveys dissonance and distance, appropriately enough for a man standing under the gallows who’s wasting precious time getting talked into a TV gig.

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But there’s more going on here. In black-and-white, the lush folds of curtain behind Rock are reduced to vertical bars of shadow, a suggestion of prison bars, and the two mic stands cage him in further. When he bursts out of the studio, the prison bar image is even more pronounced as he runs past a wall of bars that dominate the static screen. He’s next shown washing his face in a grubby bathroom, where a design of black stripes plays over the white wall behind him.

It’s a simple image: Rock fears arrest and execution, but he’s already in prison. It’s easy to miss these details because the scenes flickers by so fast, with Rock’s live performance (and tribute to the late Fresno Foxglove) crashing into dissonance before he bolts. But the subtle drama and tension created by the thoughtful design gives “That’s Jazz” a depth that enhances its comic notes, too.

But there’s more to this imagery.

Speaking in Peter Coyote’s voice, Rock’s cat, Dizzy, reads from a copy of Meowl: “I dreamed of lions in a cage…” Rock snaps his fingers in a beatnik salute, but he’s missed the point. “It’s about the cage, not the lions,” Dizzy tells him. “Stop thinking about the lions, man.”

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It’s not about the lions; it’s about the cage. It’s not about Rock Banyon and his despair. It’s about what Eric Jonrosh sees as cruel persecution by prudes and philistines. He barely knows who Rock Banyon is. This is a story of squares hounding the artist, not a man fighting a murder rap.

The Spoils Before Dying has not yet touched on racism, presumably because it’s entirely outside of Eric Jonrosh’s experience and therefore outside of his imagination. “Men like me are never innocent in the U.S.” is the closest it gets, and in context, with the police lambasting him as a “jazzbo,” that sounds more like a complaint that an artist is doomed to the fringes—not because Jonrosh envisions a life without racial prejudice, but because his ego insists that the cruelest marginalization is the one he himself suffers.

So it’s striking that both the (fictional) book and film of The Spoils Before Dying, despite its mid-century casts’ mannered pronunciation of hommo-sexual, speak so frankly of gay rights. “Collector, drop-out, bon vivant” Kenton Price (Michael Sheen) namedrops The Mattachine Society, an actual civil rights group founded in Los Angeles only a few years before Jonrosh published his book, and gives voice to the anguish of this particular form of oppression.

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Kenton Price moves fast. After Rock stumbles into Another Bar, Kenton spares just a few sentences before asking, “Want to get outta here?”

For once, Rock isn’t so quick. “What for?” After Rock rebuffs him, Kenton snipes that the matchbook Rock’s carrying, a clue from Stygamian’s effects, marks him as a fellow hommo-sexual. “What about those matches?” Rock asks, digging deeper, and Kenton tries to dig his way out of the revelation. But Rock’s up to speed now, and he digs the situation, you dig?

Rock (Michael Kenneth Williams) shares a match with a stranger (Michael Sheen) (Katrina Marcinowski/IFC)

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What is the situation? It doesn’t look like Eric Jonrosh knows the answer.

There’s a lot of contrivance and not a lot of complexity to the plot, and this is the one context where that’s a compliment. Rock Banyon just happens to wander into a strange bar where he just happens to pull out the matchbook he took from Stygamian’s effects that just happens to attract the amorous attentions of a friend of Stygamian’s (though if he can spot that matchbook as he approaches from across the room, Kenton Price is a sharp-eyed fellow as well as a sharp dresser).

The miniseries The Spoils Before Dying celebrates the errors and inanity of the film The Spoils Before Dying, whether that’s the confusing calendar, stilted dialogue, bad special effects, the demands of a lousy cast and a shoestring budget, or, most damningly, the obvious limitations of its author’s imagination and expertise. There’s more than one kind of cage, and Eric Jonrosh’s pedestrian writing, cultural illiteracy, and foolhardy confidence create their own cage for his work, penning it in on every side.

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The script’s attempts to approximate jazzland slang are colorful and elaborate. Rock describes Dallas Boudreaux (Kate McKinnon) as the late Ordell’s “juicehead ophine,” presumably a play on ofay filtered through Jonrosh’s ignorance; Alistair St. Barnaby-Bixby-Jones is scandalized by the rumor of “a respectable jazz musician such as yourself wankered on yellowjackets, or red robins, or the Queen’s ears, or Oscar Wilde’s left shoe, or OGOGBLGBLTQAT esquires!”

It’s a toss-up whether the best running gag is the interjection of random jazz musician’s names, no matter their age, era, or style, in a pretense at expertise that only demonstrates Jonrosh’s unfamiliarity with the genre, or the constant mistaken attempts to identify world-class scientist (“something with rockets, I think,” Kenton elaborates) Wilbur Stygamian.

“The Iditarod dog-sledding champion?” “The speed skater?” “The lithographer?” “I was thinking about Stanley Wilberson.” “No, that’s the inventor.” “No, the architect.” “Now you’re thinking about Wilson, Wilson Stansonian.” “Right, yes, that’s the guy.” As he runs pell-mell from the studio, Rock himself calls the dead man “William Stygamian,” and Dallas doesn’t even try to get it right, instead bleating out,“Stygatz, Styg-who-duh-what?!”

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Despite the broadness of that reading, there’s pathos in McKinnon’s scene as Dallas, the junkie girlfriend grieving the murdered Ordell. The whole segment is grubbily, horribly funny, and Dallas’ parting words—”Hey, Rock, you know what’s funny? I really hate jazz”—are broken by her broad, comical sobs, it’s also an exaggerated piece of gritty drama, the kind of thing Barton Fink might turn out on a bad day.

Delores DeWinter (Kristin Wiig) drinks definitely not a daiquiri (Katrina Marcinowski/IFC)

Wiig’s performance quiets down in these episodes, letting Laureighya Samcake’s mostly earnest line readings contrast with Delores DeWinter’s character and farcical situations. While Deleon holds them at gunpoint, she lounges on the sofa bed, her ankles bound by a belt and her wrists barely confined by a tiny strap that she keeps lightly hooked around her thumbs, freeing herself only to pop into her mouth the straw for the curaçoa blue daiquiri her captor made. (“They’re pretty good!”) Her slow song (“That’s me without you”) is just barely more maudlin than any other torch song, and she sings it without comical flourish. It’s weirdly stirring.

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As in the previous episodes, Michael Kenneth Williams is impeccable. He gives Rock Banyon, tormented artist and suspected murderer, a potent interior gleam, which is a darned good thing in a character whose creator doesn’t know anything about his inner self. His one concession to the comic tone is shimmying his shoulders in tempo with the background ditty as he rides his obviously fake motorbike through the obviously fake landscape. Williams anchors the whole silly pastiche with his sobriety—ironically, because “sobriety” is the last word anyone would apply to Rock Banyon.

(This review is brought to you by Boghei French Like Cigarettes. That’s smooth.)

Stray observations

  • I didn’t expect to wake up this morning, or any morning, thinking “Emily Ratajkowski was great in that role,” but life takes you to unexpected places. With her darting eyes, artfully pursed lips, and elaborately crossed legs, as well as the showcase model hand gestures with which she guides Rock through doorways and into elevators, she’s playing a C-grade femme fatale from a B picture.
  • In a scene at his beach house, Kenton Price drops the ice tongs while nervously mixing cocktails, and Michael Sheen (actually, whatever mid-century actor he’s playing) spikes a look straight into the camera to see if he should cut or continue.
  • In “Murder In B-Flat,” Rock dives “soul-first into a bottle of Bagpipes O’Toole brand vodka-flavored Scotch.” In “That’s Jazz,” Kenton Price orders “my usual, another long cool glass of Bagpipes O’Toole Scotch-flavored vodka,” but the smash cut is to a can of “Bagpipes O’Toole Brand Whisky with EASY-OPEN® can. Perfect for driving.”
  • Though it’s sad to see Andy Daly recede into the background rather than creating one of his collection of sinister glad-handers, he delivers exactly what the role demands. It isn’t about Artie Mann, man. It’s only barely about Rock Banyon. It’s about the cage, man.

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