Sunday, June 2, 2019


Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's 2014 film What We Do in the Shadows is not only the greatest vampire comedy ever made, which is admittedly no great feat, but also one of the best comedy films of the current decade. Its mockumentary format and Waititi's increased prestige after Thor: Ragnarok probably made the film a natural candidate for a TV spinoff.  Waititi and Clement have taken an active role in the new production, Clement creating the new characters while each man directed three of the first season's ten episodes. Now playing on the FX channel, the show is set in the same "universe" as the movie, with Clement and Waititi recreating their movie roles for one episode, but the location has shifted to Staten Island NY, where another motley group of vampires share a home in a surprisingly suburban neighborhood. Unlike in the film, one of the vampires is female, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) having emigrated generations ago with her husband Laszlo (Matt Berry). There's also greater diversity in the form of Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), a white-collar "energy vampire" who leeches people's life force by being a bore and shares none of the traditional vampires' vulnerabilities. Rounding out the main cast are de facto house leader Nandor (Kayvan Novak) and his long-suffering human familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillen). For the most part the vampires (apart from Colin) share the basic characteristic of the original film vampires, all suffering from a sort of arrested development exacerbated by decadence that renders them more obtuse and awkward than the sophisticated bloodsuckers of popular fiction without much compromising their ability to prey on the living.

There's a token storyline for the season that requires our vampires to embark on a "conquest" of Staten Island, but it peters out before the season does without affecting the quality of the comedy. It only underscores the main joke of the What We Do in the Shadows concept, which really is to reimagine vampires in the stereotypical images of some of their geeky, socially awkward fans in modern culture. Ironically, this becomes most clear when the show spends time mocking the allegedly virginal types who indulge in LARP-ing and other habits that supposedly keep them ideal prey for the vampires. At first glance this looks like a mean-spirited if not self-destructive swipe at part of the show's presumed core audience, but it's hard to resent it once you're reminded that the vampires are just as pathetic as their prey. Above all, the protagonists are hopelessly awkward socially -- though Colin Robinson is admittedly deliberately so.This is driven home every time they interact with the human establishment, from their trips to the convenience store to their dealings with bureaucracy. The standout episodes in this respect are the second, when Nandor attempts to take over Staten Island by appearing at a borough council meeting, and the fifth, where Laszlo in bat form is captured by an Animal Control unit. It may not surprise you, though in a way it may disappoint you, to learn that bureaucrats are immune to most vampire mind tricks.

The TV Shadows benefits from current short-form production trends. It has little chance to grow stale over a grand total of five hours' screen time. If it has a weakness, it's that Nandor, Laszlo and Nadja all seem like variations on the same basic character type, though Kayvan Novak stands out by making Nandor, his ostensible leadership and seniority notwithstanding, even more childish than the others. He and Demetriou also benefit from having supporting characters to interact with regularly -- Guillermo for Nandor and for Nadja both an apprentice vampire (Beanie Feldstein) and a reincarnated human lover (Jake McDorman), while Laszlo gets to embellish his character mainly through hobbies like topiary sculpting and a porno career dating back to the birth of cinema. All three actors do enough to individualize their characters and keep them interesting, wile Proksch can be depended upon to hit discordant notes at opportune times. To some extent Guillen's Guillermo is our point-of-view character, since the film crew that follows the vampires everywhere is barely acknowledged, but he's weird enough in his unswerving desire to become a vampire that he doesn't stick out as a mere trope, and in any event his character continues to evolve as the season ends, with more developments sure to come now that the show has been renewed. For the most part, Shadows has found a comfortable balance of quirky character comedy and social satire that inspires confidence in the future. It's even less of a feat, to be fair, to have made the best vampire comedy TV show ever than to have done the best movie in that category, but Clement, Waititi et al have done it just the same and deserve another round of credit for it.

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