For newcomers unfamiliar with Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s 2014 mockumentary horror flick, FX’s revamping of What We Do In The Shadows will earn plenty of laughs and a few raised eyebrows. It’s the kind of meandering comedy series that’s so pointlessly entertaining, so charmingly strange, you can’t help but look forward to the next episode.
For fans of the comedy duo’s original film, a movie about a group of ancient vampires living as flatmates in New Zealand, the FX revival might feel like it’s searching for its own voice. Taking that into consideration, it’s best to not come into this show with any expectations.
That’s not a dragging of the show itself. After all, FX’s version of What We Do In The Shadows isn’t a reboot, it’s a reworking of Waititi and Clement’s original concept. Instead of a trio of vamps living on the outskirts of society on the other side of the world, this new group of bloodsuckers is wasting away in a dilapidated house on Staten Island. There’s a dandy vamp named Laszlo (played by the ingenious Matt Berry) who prefers to spend his time donning elaborate capes and pruning topiary vulvas in the garden. His lady-wife, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), is a delightfully droll character with a thick accent and an even stronger eye-roll, and their roommate Nandor (Kayvan Novak) is a former warlord with a love of protocol and someone named Guillermo (Harvey Guillen) who caters to his every eccentric whim.
The bare bones of this series are similar enough to its movie counterpart that there’s a real temptation to compare performances and characters to their initial doppelgangers. Berry’s Laszlo is clearly a stand-in for Waititi’s Viago, but he puts enough of a spin on the guy that, after watching the four episodes made available to critics, it feels like he’s forging a new path for the character. Laszlo’s high-maintenance, but he’s also aloof and completely narcissistic, something Viago never was. If anything, Nandor feels closer to the character’s teddy-bear-like personality even though he shares a backstory with Clement’s Vlad, who was still lamenting the loss of his torture chamber when we met him in the film.
That said, you might actually enjoy the show more if you can forget about the movie that spawned this show. It’s a weird suggestion, sure. The whole reason FX signed onto this series was because of the fervor behind the film. They’ve marketed the show around fans’ hunger for more. And yet…
Waititi and Clement executive produce, write, or direct nearly every episode, which means the show hangs onto the dry wit and absurdist humor that both men are masters of. The series is shot in the same mockumentary-style that made shows like The Office so popular, and though that format has been entirely overdone, it only lends itself to more laughs here. There’s a real desire by some to label this as some kind of Gothic Office follow-up but, personally, it feels more like a vampiric Schitt’s Creek, a series of half-hour ramblings that are more concerned with manufacturing laughs from the quirkiness of its characters than establishing a driving plotline.
Not that the show doesn’t have purpose, mind you. At one point in the first four episodes, an ancient vampire visits our trio and demands they begin colonizing and enslaving the human population of the “New World.” It’s been 200 years since they landed in America after all, they should control more territory than just a five-house block radius of New York’s trashiest suburb. But that edict doesn’t feel essential to the story, which flourishes when it concentrates on the dichotomy of living as the undead.
These vamps have eternal life, but they’re happiest when holed up in their decrepit house, reminiscing on the good ‘ol days. For an immortal, that might mean the pillaging of villages in the dark ages, or love affairs that ended with decapitation. Waititi and Clement know how to mine humor from these ancient vampire tropes while also injecting a bit of character study and introspection, and that’s most apparent after the running gags become background noise and the comedic leads get their time to shine.
And if there’s an early breakout star of the series it has to be Demetriou’s Nadja, a woman slowly suffocating under the incompetence and inherent ridiculousness of her male roommates. Nadja is an old-school vamp, quick to solve arguments with the suggestion of bloodshed, unconcerned with appearances or mollifying their human neighbors like her husband and friend. She also has the best one-liners on the show – a subplot involving a group of LARPers meant to be the main course of the trio’s virgin feast results in her refusing to suck their blood because these nerds would just “taste sad.”
Another addition to the story doesn’t fare as well. An energy vampire – a wholly new creation exclusive to the show – named Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) is a daywalker who lives with the group and feeds on the lifeforce of his human co-workers by literally boring them to death. His initial cubicle-sucking-jaunt through the office is funny enough – who hasn’t worked with a guy like Colin? – but it quickly becomes apparent he’d have been better as a one-off guest character than a mainstay.
But there’s real potential here for FX to capitalize on this “new age” of comedy.
Sure, shows like The Good Place or Brooklyn-Nine-Nine are the standard, sitcoms that feature a changing storyline from week to week, thrusting their characters into riotous situations and then playing them up for the laugh-meter. But shows like What We Do In The Shadows (and other quirky character portraits) that revel in their own idle wanderings — shows that exist somewhere in between the moment after a joke is delivered but before the audiences decides to laugh — are slowly carving their own space on TV, too, and What We Do In The Shadows sinks its teeth into that hard-to-define stock quite nicely.
‘What We Do In The Shadows’ premieres on FX Wednesday, March 27