North Texas Daily

Column: Will Ferrell’s new comedy stereotypes 1930s Texas

Column: Will Ferrell’s new comedy stereotypes 1930s Texas

Column: Will Ferrell’s new comedy stereotypes 1930s Texas
January 30
01:10 2014

Nicholas Friedman // Staff Writer

Will Ferrell’s new star-studded comedy miniseries begins in the humble town of Denton, Texas in 1931, or so an IGN.com review of the show’s first episode claimed. After watching the show and its already-aired episodes, it is clear that our town is never mentioned by name, but if it is supposed to Denton, the portrayal is obviously “loosely based.”

‘The Spoils of Babylon,’ narrated by Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell) tells the story of a young orphan named Devon (Tobey Maguire) who is found wandering the fields of Texas before he is picked up by oilman Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins) and his daughter, Cynthia (Kirsten Wiig). As Devon matures, he begins helping Jonas in his attempts to strike oil and ends up falling in love with Cynthia along the way. By the end of the first episode, Jonas finally strikes gold after his land is threatened and the family promptly moves into an upscale residence.

The simple truth is, Denton was never a big part of the oil rush, at least not in the 1930s.

“The early 1930s saw a monster oil strike in East Texas, and that’s where most of the influence in oil came from,” said Randolph Campbell, UNT history professor and Lone Star Chair in Texas History holder. “Denton County has never really been much of an oil field.”

Campbell said the Denton area was more urban than rural in that time period, with residents having luxuries like indoor plumbing and electricity. He said that though the basic premise is not implausible, it is highly unlikely.

In fact, Denton was much more involved in a different kind of industry.

“Denton County, although predominantly agricultural, also has several industries, most of which are engaged in processing agricultural product,” Norman Hanbury said of the products of Denton County in an excerpt from the 1939 Works Progress Administration guide. “The raising of agricultural products is by far the most important occupation of the people of the county.”

This negation of detail is prominent throughout the show. The location tagged “Denton” by the IGN review is known only as “West Texas” in the show, and is never referenced by name.

Though the show is a send-up of 1970s and 1980s grand-scale soap operas, its attempts to portray true Texas life in the ‘30s end up falling flat and costing the show its immersion, relying on exaggerated humor and overuse of drugs and alcohol for its content and substance.

The show lacks personality, which could be attributed to its false portrayal of a city in any part of Texas at the time, particularly Denton.

According to the WPA guide, the city of Denton had an estimated 9,587 residents in 1930, and was populated by bus stations, depots and even a municipal airport. The town’s set pieces in the show are delegated to small-scale models rather than actual sets, and this takes the life out of what could be a bustling town.

As the episodes of the show progress, Devon’s story is moved far away from Texas as he joins the war effort in 1939 before returning home years later after he is presumed dead from a plane crash.

Devon and Cynthia’s twisted romance takes center-stage as the series progresses, but without proper characterization it is hard to care for the characters.

“The Spoils of Babylon” would have benefited from a deeper understanding of the setting it claims to be based on. Though the mention by IGN that the story begins in Denton is gratuitous, it’s hard to take the show seriously. It suffers from an identity crisis as characters change accents and motives throughout.

Though this behavior is intentional because the series is a parody, it becomes less and less decipherable as its plot falls into obscurity. The full potential for the series is yet to be seen as it is still airing, but its notion of taking place in Denton is almost nonexistent. The setting serves as a loose caricature of what a city in Texas was truly like during the 1930s.

Feature photo: C. U. Hogan standing next to a DentonCounty Pioneers memorial headstone while saluting. He is wearing a suit and holding his hat in is right hand. The memorial reads: “1851 to 1857 Dedicated to the Memory of the Denton County Pioneers Who Founded Alton By the Benjamin Lyon Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution 1930. Photo courtesy of Portal to Texas History

About Author

Nicholas Friedman

Nicholas Friedman

Nicholas Friedman is the Editor In Chief of the North Texas Daily. In addition, he's had his work published at The Dallas Morning News, GuideLive and the Denton Record-Chronicle.

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