In 2014, writer-directors-producers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement released “What We Do In The Shadows,” a low-budget mockumentary-style comedy starring a group of unusual roommates — read: vampires — living together in Wellington, New Zealand. The main occupants of the house are the lovesick 18th century dandy Viago (Waititi), the reformed 12th century tyrant Vladislav (Clement) whose shapeshifting and mind control powers are not quite what they used to be and sweater-loving “bad boy” Deacon (Jonathan Brugh): three vampire roommates working through the age-old issues of fighting the urge to eat human friends (Stu!), dealing with that one annoying new vampire who no one actually wants to hang out with but can’t take a hint and deciding who should do the bloody dishes. There’s also Petyr (Ben Fransham), the older-than-dirt Nosferatu homage that lives in the basement, but he mostly just sleeps all the time. He is 8000 years old, after all. With a shaky camera and a total dedication to increasingly absurd jokes, Clement and Waititi created a near perfect horror-comedy that has since amassed a considerable and well-deserved fan following worldwide.
In light of the film’s reception, Waititi and Clement developed a spin-off TV series, “Wellington Paranormal,” for New Zealand TV station TVNZ2. Based on two police officer characters with minor roles in the film, the first season of “Wellington Paranormal” premiered in 2018, with a second season set to air later this year.
Clements and Waititi, who have skyrocketed into the Hollywood stratosphere since 2014 with the release of “Thor: Ragnarok,” which Waititi co-wrote and directed, are now back with a new extension to the spooky world of “What We Do In The Shadows,” this time for the U.S. channel FX. This new series, also titled “What We Do in the Shadows,” takes the same premise from the film but moves the setting to the blandly suburban Staten Island. The show may feature new roommates in a new country, but the jokes, while not quite as perfectly paced in the episodes released thus far as in the original film, are as elaborate and ridiculous as ever.
In the past few years, many sitcoms have adopted the mockumentary style following the huge success of “The Office,” but the format has evolved in some shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family” to be a traditionally filmed and structured sitcom accented with talking head interviews. “What We Do In the Shadows” sticks closer to mockumentary roots, mixing its interviews with shaky-cam shots that emphasize a low-budget documentary feel. FX might be working with a bigger budget than the original film, but they are directing the money towards flamboyant sets, costumes and vampire-to-bat transitions.
The original film’s dedication to elaborate historical visual gags lives on in the new spin-off series and is possibly my favorite part of the show. The intro features formal oil portraits of the characters from the 18th century and candids from them out on the town in the 1960s, and interviews about the vampires’ past lives are embellished with 16th century demon art to demonstrate their historical ferocity.
In the FX series, new vampires Nandor (Kayvan Novak) and the couple Nadja (Natasia Demetrious) and Lazslo (Matt Berry) engage in witty wordplay and petty infighting along with the occasional hissing fight, but their roommate chemistry is not yet on par with that of the original trio. The vampires’ screen time with other supporting characters is arguably more entertaining than watching the three of them together; Nandor’s interactions with his childish assistant Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) are a delight, and the best character in the whole show might just be “energy vampire” Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), an insipid “daywalker” who feeds off boredom and annoyance instead of human blood.
The pilot episode strongly echos the original film, following an almost identical structure to the first 15 minutes of the movie when introducing the characters, but soon shifts to a bigger focus: an old world Baron is arriving for a visit, and he expects the gang to have taken over the New World after 200 years in America. Part of the charm of the original movie was its focus on the daily lives of three vampires and the local Wellington Vampire Society without too dramatic of a narrative arc. After two episodes, it is hard to tell if a broader narrative arc will be a good thing or a bad thing, as sometimes the conflict surrounding the Baron’s order becomes tedious.
The rapid pacing of the second episode is overwhelming at times, as jokes are thrown out a mile a minute without any time for them to stick, perhaps trying to make up for the missing chemistry of the original trio by sheer quantity of jokes. While the chemistry may not yet be fully developed, the humor is still a good enough reason to keep watching. It might not reach the heights of such gems as “werewolves not swearwolves” in the original, but gags like one vampire luring raccoons with a flute in the style of the Pied Piper, or another dousing himself in body glitter to match the vampiric beauty ideal that is Edward from “Twilight,” make this new spinoff well worth your time.
While the world domination plot line does have its amusing moments, the show shines best when the vampires struggle in the suburban, decidedly human world they inhabit. From their struggles paying in a local drugstore to their absolute powerlessness in the face of a Staten Island City Council meeting, the absurdity of these mystical creatures of the night interacting with the mundane is the best part of the show. Although not quite on par with the original film, FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows” is a fabulous, bloody hilarious take on the mockumentary-format sitcom.