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IFC's 'The Spoils of Babylon' pokes fun at epic TV miniseries

"Shogun," "The Winds of War," "Game of Thrones" and "Under the Dome" are just a few titles in the library of highly regarded novels that have been adapted for television.

And then there's "The Spoils of Babylon," the sprawling 22-hour miniseries with an all-star cast based on the massive novel by self-proclaimed "undisputed master of dramatic fiction" Eric Jonrosh.

Filmed during the 1970s when "novels for television" were all the rage, "The Spoils of Babylon" revolved around the oil-rich Morehouse family and was packed with scenes of betrayal, greed and forbidden love. For reasons that remain mysterious, the miniseries never saw the light of day, but a severely abbreviated version has recently surfaced, and Jonrosh, with typical bravado, is finally unveiling his "masterpiece," complete with its "magnificent writing and sublime direction."

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If all this sounds like a joke, you would be correct.

IFC's "The Spoils of Babylon" is actually a parody of those overblown miniseries, complete with swelling orchestral music, awkward dialogue and chest-heaving passion. The six-episode project, created and written by Funny or Die's Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele, represents IFC's most aggressive move yet in planting its comedy flag on the cable landscape.

"This is a really big deal for us," said IFC President and General Manager Jennifer Caserta.

However, the project is about more than fun and games, said Steele. "The Spoils of Babylon," which premieres Jan. 9, is first and foremost an affectionate tribute to the long-long-long "novel for television."

"The world of parody can easily get into the world of silly, and we didn't want to do that," said Steele. "We wanted to take a loving pass at the miniseries genre that we both grew up with without it getting too silly."

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Headlining "The Spoils of Babylon" is an impressive ensemble that includes Tobey Maguire, Tim Robbins, Kristen Wiig, Val Kilmer, Jessica Alba, Michael Sheen, Haley Joel Osment and the voice of Carey Mulligan. Hosting as the extremely conceited, Scotch-drinking Jonrosh is an almost unrecognizable Will Ferrell with a heavy beard and ruddy cheeks, fresh from his stint as newsman Ron Burgundy in "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues."

The producers, Steele said, wanted performers not usually associated with comedy: "Establishing the right tone was key. We needed for the material to be interesting enough that it allowed the actors to do something different than what they're used to. There's long monologues and stupid dialogue, but we're not hinging this on big slapstick jokes."

Ferrell's Jonrosh, who introduces the miniseries, was inspired by Orson Welles and his commercials for Paul Masson wine. In the often-mocked TV ads, the legendary director would pompously proclaim, "We will sell no wine before its time."

"I'm definitely channeling Orson," Ferrell said.

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Even though the epic "Shogun" was the only miniseries Farrell can remember watching — he had to do a project on it for school — he vividly remembered watching the commercials for several miniseries: "They were so heavily promoted. It was event television. I wish I could have stayed up."

The first few "chapters" of "The Spoils of Babylon," which spans five decades, are littered with humorous jabs at the miniseries form. Some of the sets are deliberately tacky or actually toy miniatures. Forbidden love, war, lust, greed and stilted acting are front and center. There's even an opening "Theme From 'The Spoils of Babylon'" from crooner Steve Lawrence.

In the first episode, oil tycoon Jonas Morehouse (Robbins) is getting wrapped up in his business, while his adopted son Devon (Maguire) and daughter Cynthia (Wiig) come dangerously close to the "forbidden love that dare not speak its name."

Maguire, who is known mostly for his portrayal of Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" trilogy as well as dramatic fare such as "The Great Gatsby" and "The Cider House Rules," has one of the most prominent parts in "The Spoils of Babylon." Although he has dabbled in comedy before, the project displays his more irreverent side.

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"This is nothing like I've ever done before, and I thought it would be fun," he said.

Many of his scenes were with Wiig, one of the top forces in comedy thanks to her stint on "Saturday Night Live" and films such as "Bridesmaids."

Said Maguire: "Keeping a straight face while acting with Kristen was probably the most challenging aspect of this. We were laughing a lot during shooting. She is so much fun to play off of, very inventive. She was also very supportive and encouraging to me."

IFC's Caserta said if "The Spoils of Babylon" is a hit, the network may spotlight other notable works by Jonrosh: "Mr. Jonrosh is the author of many fine novels. He's got a whole library we can pull from."

greg.braxton@latimes.com

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