(Editor’s note: The following review covers the first four episodes of What We Do in the Shadows’ debut season, and was originally published following its South by Southwest premiere on Friday, March 8th.)
The Pitch: By now, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s What We Do in the Shadows has existed in one form or another for over a decade. What started as a short film in 2005 slowly mutated into their 2014 cult hit and has since bled out to myriad mediums. There’s a promotional short film Waititi helmed in 2014 for Discover New Zealand titled, Vampire’s Guide to Vellington, in which he reprised his role as Viago von Blitzenberg. There’s Wellington Paranormal, a New Zealand spinoff series based on the film’s two police officers, O’Leary and Minogue, that dropped last year. There’s the reported film sequel, We’re Wolves, that’s been circling in development hell for half a decade. And now, there’s the titular American series for FX, which brings the vampiric mockumentary to New York City, where three age-old vamps have been living together for hundreds of years.
What We Do in America (And With So Much Time): While a cursory glance at that exhaustive summation might lead you to assume that Waititi and Clement have drained out the proverbial body of their spooky idea, you’d be surprised at how much blood has yet to be spilt. Because if there’s anything to glean from FX’s new series, it’s that What We Do in the Shadows should have always been a series. Simply put, there’s just so much you can do with this premise, and the first four episodes alone proves as much.
Absolutely nothing has been lost in translation. The not-so-subtle social commentary, the tongue-in-cheek mundanities, and the over-the-top lore that made the 2014 film such a crossover hit are all embedded within the exceptional pilot. This isn’t exactly surprising, though, seeing how the film itself was episodic in nature, which likely explains why Waititi and Clement have managed to splinter the source material. The difference is that they have so much time to actually nurture and evolve the material at hand.
What’s more, pitting the European vampires against everyday American life makes for such an enviable juxtaposition, affording Waititi and Clement the chance to truly triple down on the narrative’s already fish-out-of-water tropes. Second episode “City Council” hints at these endless scenarios by supplanting the vampires into a sterile board room, where they fiercely debate a local council about the steps in which they might approach world domination. Clement lenses the whole thing like a segment on C-SPAN.
Even when they tackle more obvious tropes — such as the fluorescent purgatory of the standard American office space, which has been beaten to death by now — Waititi and Clement are able to find new life. In one hilarious arc, Mark Proksch’s energy-sucking vampire Colin Robinson has to battle a new employee (Vanessa Bayer), who intrudes on his turf with her soul-crushing sob stories. The way their rivalry not only offers a charming relationship, but also an expansion of the lore speaks to that well of possibilities.
God Bless Matt Berry: One of the more troubling notions going into this series was whether or not the cast would be able to match the chemistry of the 2014 film. After all, so much of the film’s success rests on the shoulders of its characters, specifically Waititi and Clement’s, so not having them involved on-screen was always going to be a gamble. Rest assured, it’s one that paid off as this ensemble is, dare we say, even stronger?
It’s true. Partly because we’re given more time. Partly because we’re already familiar with the world. But really, it’s mostly because of the inspired casting of UK legend Matt Berry as Laszio. For years, Berry has accumulated one of the most impressive resumes in British television, from Toast of London to The IT Crowd to The Mighty Boosh, but what truly has him primed here is his past work on Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.
With that cruelly short-lived series, Berry mined the hilarity from the tombs with ease, relishing the B-movie tropes with a prideful smugness, and he’s bringing that same magic to Shadows. Waititi and Clement are well aware of his strengths, too, because the peculiarities that Laszio are given — for instance, one of his personal treasures is a garden of vulva topiaries — all capitalize on that cavalier masculinity he knows how to pervert.
Yet part of Berry’s success is that it’s not all on him. Both Natasia Demetriou, who plays Laszio’s partner Nadja, and Kayvan Novak, who rounds out the trio as their testy roommate Nandor, all come with their own respective quirks. In fact, Demetriou’s Nadja has so far been given the strongest narrative beats, especially when she attempts to take a naive college youngster under her wing, no pun intended.
Meanwhile, Nandor’s tasked with what could possibly be this season’s strongest through line, namely his enduring relationship to his familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillen). A cross between the film’s hapless human friend Stu and Deacon’s own familiar Jackie, Guillermo is all on board with the vamp life, waiting patiently to be made one of them, and as we learn in the pilot, his patience is wearing pretty thin.
You Will Not Eat Guillermo: Guillen is a considerable addition to an outstanding ensemble. As Guillermo, he’s more or less the ideal Waititi archetype in that he’s mild-mannered and anxiously flustered. While he’s initially tasked to serve as the most accessible conduit for the audience, there’s a wild streak within that seemingly grows by the episode. Granted, that wild side of his hovers over a steady two or three on a fiendish scale of 10, but his evolution, be it slow or not, will certainly be one of the more intriguing facets of the narrative going forward.
The Verdict: This series could have been such a misstep, but Waititi and Clement managed to actually improve upon their source material. Even when they’re revisiting past gags or recycling familiar motifs, as they often do in the pilot, it’s mostly in service of bridging those ideas to broader concepts or an even greater bit. No, there’s a creative spirit coursing through the veins of this series, one that doesn’t just conjure up what we love about the film, but what we love about the concept, and, more importantly, what can be done with the concept.
By comparison, it’s a lot like what Peter Berg did with Friday Night Lights: Great movie, even better show, if only for the time you invested in that world and with those characters and with their stakes. Sure, the stakes are being held fairly low right now for these three vamps — pun most certainly intended — but the world-building is already aggressive. It’s as if the film never ended, which is what most, if not all, of its fans likely would have preferred back in 2014. Well, now they got their wish, but rest assured, the thirst for more settles in fast.
Where’s It Playing? What We Do in the Shadows premieres March 27th via FX.
Red Carpet Gallery: