"What We Do in the Shadows" - Season One Review

If there was ever a show about absolutely nothing since Seinfeld, What We Do in the Shadows is it. Maybe it's the documentary-film approach, maybe it's the vampires have such drab lives.

Don't get me wrong: What We Do is funny, if you like that kind of humor. It presents a "realistic" look at vampirism, and showcases just how goofy it would be if it were real.

A disclaimer: I haven't seen the movie What We Do in the Shadows. Some of the creative team--Taika Waititi, Jonny Brugh, and Jermaine Clement--are involved with the TV series, and they have cameos as vampires in one episode, playing their characters Viado, Deacon Brucke, and Vladislav from the movie.

Mark Proksch, What We Do in the Shadows S01E05

The comedy of What We Do stems primarily from two sources: the aforementioned taking the mickey to vampire myths and legends. And undermining the solemnity of the characters. The group's day vampire, Colin (Mark Proksch) takes every opportunity to mock the night vampires for being unable to withstand sunlight or enter churches, and points out their hypnotism is crap. Part of it is he feeds on emotions of boredom and rage, but part of it is he likes lording it over the night vampires.

The head of the night vampires and the house is Nandor (Kayvan Novak). He was apparently the ruler of some of some obscure Middle Eastern country destroyed over 700 years ago. Nandor came to America, briefly tried to become an American citizen (inspired by the Dream Team in 1992), but never quite got around to it. Serving him, is his human familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillen), who hopes Nandor will eventually turn him into a vampire. It's been ten years since Guillermo became Nandor's familiar, and he's still dreaming.

Matt Berry, What We Do in the Shadows S01E09

Also in the house are Laszlo Cravensworth (Matt Berry) and his wife Nadja (Natasia Demetriou). They have a mostly happy married life, despite the fact Nadja is smitten with Gregor, a lover who keeps reincarnating and is then decapitated. Laszlo has odd habits like topiary-sculpting female sex organs, and having made porn movies since movies were invented.

Colin lives in the house and no one particularly likes him. He's an office drone, said office providing the perfect feeding ground because he can either bore or enrage people with long pointless stories. Colin also likes to pop up when least wanted, and seems to know the others don't like him but he doesn't care since he can feed on their disgust with him.

The season starts with Baron Afanas (Doug Jones) showing up to check on the how the vampires are conquering the New World. They haven't made any effort to, and Afanas disappears shortly thereafter. We get a few episodes of the vampires trying to rule the U.S. starting with Staten Island where they live. One of the funniest episodes is "City Council", where Nandor demands the city council surrender to him. He mesmerizes the co-chairman to turn on the chairman, while Laszlo attempts to impress the chairman by killing all the raccoons that have been going through her trash. The episode ends with the co-chairman going berserk and security taking him away, while Colin watches from the gallery and says he can't stand up.

Michael Dara, What We Do in the Shadows S01E04

The vampires also meet the local werewolves and vampires, none of which are very impressive as the show undermines the horror and solemnity again. The werewolves are a bunch of local violence junkies, and the vampires are stereotypical New Yorkers (one is a rapper, Count Rapula) that want nothing to do with the old-school vampires. Their leader, Simon the Devious (Nick Kroll), has invited them to his night club so he can figuratively kick them in the face and get Laszlo's cursed witch-skin hat.

Afanas eventually wants to see the world he's conquering, and insists the vampires take him out on the town. Colin dresses him up in his clothing, and they hit the clubs. Afanas insists on eating pizza, but eating food causes vampires to projectile vomit. This results in Afanas shooting around a street like a balloon losing its air. The vampires drink drug-users blood and stagger home high, and Guillermo accidentally opens the door and lets the sunlight in, frying Afanas.

"The Trial" deals with the aftermath of that, and features the Vampire Council. Not only are Clement, Brugh, and Waititi present as their characters from the movies, but we get a bizarre array of big-name actors. All who have played vampires in movies. So there's Paul Reubens, Tilda Swinton, Evan Rachel Wood, Wesley Snipes (the group's day walker), and Danny Trejo. Dave Bautisa is present for some reason as well. As is Kristen Schaal as an officious vampire who has trouble finishing her sentences ("You could hang. Here, until the trial starts.").

Jake McDorman, Natasia Demetriou, What We Do in the Shadows S01E09

The last three episodes pretty much forget the whole trial aspect and go back to the mundanity of vampire life. Nandor applies for citizenship, the vampires host an orgy, Nandor visits a descendant. There are subplots along the way but they fade in and out. The Baron's visit to America, Nadja searches for her lover, Gregor, now reincarnated as a parking garage attendant, Jeff. She also transforms a human into a vampire, causing Guillermo to sulk. Guillermo accidentally kills two vampires and learns one of his ancestors was Van Helsing.

The show is surprisingly free of serious subplotting, though. The Nadja/Gregor subplot is probably the most sustained, and that only features in 30% of the episodes. The humor isn't subtle, but the subplotting is: Guillermo has become increasingly grumpy and defiant after learning Nadja transformed a human into a vampire while Nandor overlooks him for a decade.

That also provides a cliffhanger of sorts to the series. Guillermo has already killed two vampires, and in the last scene he throws some garden spikes away in disgust... and they land in portraits of the three night vampires.

Doug Jones, What We Do in the Shadows S01E09

As noted, the humor isn't subtle. Afanas' shooting around after eating pizza is gaslit in an earlier episode when Jeff convinces Nadja to eat a piece of popcorn and she projectile-vomits for about a minute. The vampires have to go to absurd lengths to convince people to invite them into places, including parking garages and animal shelters. Vampire mythology is explained in near-endless detail, and then ruthlessly undermined both by circumstances and by the characters themselves.

In "Citizenship", Nandor has to swear to God as part of the citizenship oath, and flame spews from his mouth. In the last episode, "Ancestry", Nandor insists they all go into a church to attend the funeral of the descendant he inadvertently gave a heart attack to. The vampires sit in the back, bursting into flame and bleeding from the eyes until they're forced to leave.

And many of the situations are just goofy. A good example is in "Ancestry". Guillermo brings Nandor an envelope and Nandor insists on reading it inside his coffin. Even though Guillermo can barely slip it through the lid crack, and it's completely dark inside. It's a DNA test, and then Nandor talks a lot about how his semen was once stolen by a witch. The gag continues, as Nandor tells Laszlo and Nadja, and they worry about semen-stealing witches as well.

Kayvan Novak, Harvey Guillén, What We Do in the Shadows S01E09

Another running gag is Nandor treats Guillermo like shit. In the first episode he overlooks Guillermo's desire to be a vampire, instead giving him a glitter portrait. Nandor continues to treat Guillermo like a dog, so who can blame the familiar if/when he turns against his master?

There are also shorter gags: the same DNA test mentioned above proves Colin is 100% white. Guillermo says it's impossible, Colin shows him the report, Guillermo does a comic double-take, and they move on.

Despite Nandor being the main source of humor (Nadja describes him as a big turkey), he's also the main sense of the occasional tragedy of the vampire lifestyle. When his descendant dies in "Ancestry", Nandor seems grief-stricken even if he doesn't know what the emotion is and doesn't like it. Nandor is also the goofiest of the vampires, and comes across as an anachronism. There are also moments when he actually defends Guillermo from the other vampires. Colin could have come from The Office, and Laszlo and Nadja have a relatively healthy husband/wife relationship. Most of the comedy of the show stems from Nandor's out-of-date reactions, and his inappropriate reactions to just about everything else, and Kayvan Novak droning away in his weird semi-European accent.

You also have to admire the actors, who all keep straight faces while doing the goofiest shit imaginable. Again in "Ancestry", Nadja is moaning over paintings of her lost love Gregor, sees one with a picture of his naked butt, and stops to go "num num num num".

The mockumentary style helps, as we get occasional glimpses of the camera crew and the hazards they undergo while filming a house full of vampires.

Overall, What We Do is a worthy entry in the pantheon of vampire comedies: The Fearless Vampire Killers, Love at First Bite, Once Bitten, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and many more. If you haven't seen it already, catch it in the inevitable marathon session on FX, or when it is released on DVD.

But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. What do you think?

Written by Gislef on May 30, 2019

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