by Eric Ginsburg
It takes a minute to realize that the frumpy, old bearded man slumped into his chair and swigging wine in the opening sequence is a well-disguised Will Ferrell. But what immediately drew me to “The Spoils Before Dying,” a 2015 TV mini-series now available on Netflix, is the presence of Michael Kenneth Williams — best known for his unforgettable role as Omar in the best television series in history, “The Wire” — as the lead.
Williams appeared in plenty of big hits since his central role as a badass anti-hero in “The Wire,” including “Boardwalk Empire,” Kill the Messenger, The Road, 12 Years a Slave, “Community” and Gone Baby Gone. But here, he takes center stage.
Williams entertains as Rock Banyon, a jazz pianist who’s wanted for several murders that it appears he didn’t commit. It helps that he’s flanked by Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, along with guest appearances including Jimmy Fallon, Tim Robbins and Tim Meadows. The comedic series is more silly than it is mystery-thriller, though it’s set up like a spoof on a 50s era whodunit.
“The Spoils Before Dying” could easily be a two-hour film, but it’s more digestible as six 20-minute segments, with Ferrell opening and closing each episode as the ridiculous faux author and filmmaker.
In some respects, the series strikes a similar note to the short “A Very Murray Christmas,” also a recent Netflix addition, and not just because Maya Rudolph sings in both. There’s a melancholic yet goofy whimsy to both, a star-studded cast and a somewhat plodding narrative punctuated by what feel like inside jokes between the director and the audience. Viewers with high hopes for either will be disappointed, but the casual couch potato looking for something quick to throw on while chowing down a microwavable dinner or sharing a beer with a friend will appreciate its cleverness and wit.