What We Do in the Shadows

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Kayvan Novak in What We Do in The Shadows.
Kayvan Novak in What We Do in The Shadows.
Photo: Showmax


What We Do in the Shadows




4/5 Stars


A mockumentary following the day-to-day lives of a group of vampires who have been living together in a house on Staten Island for the past century.


Based on the 2014 film of the same name, What We Do in the Shadows has followed in its predecessor's footsteps by quickly becoming a major cult sensation. It's definitely not for everyone – mockumentaries seldom are, especially ones as goofy and weird as this – but those who like it, really, really like it. And for very good reason.

The original film was never released to cinemas in this country, but it was always exactly the sort of thing best discovered on home video or, I guess, its digital counterparts. Created by and starring Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit, Thor Ragnorok) and Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Concords), the film made use of the often overused mockumentary format to create something refreshingly original and unabashedly weird. It was also very, very funny.

Working off the simple comic premise of taking the very traditional vampire archetype (all of it: from sleeping in coffins to being able to turn into bats to being deathly allergic to sunlight) and giving them the personalities of the sort of geeky, sweetly socially awkward goth types that tend to love vampire stories in the first place, Waititi and Clement were able to squeeze out almost enough genuine laughs to fill out the film's scant 87-minute runtime. Almost. It may have gotten by on its goofy but macabre sensibilities all the way through, but the film's comedy started to feel a bit tired and rather less funny during its final act.

The problem with turning it into an ongoing TV series is, therefore, pretty obvious. If this premise could only just sustain a very tight 87-minute-long movie, how could it possibly work over a season of ten twenty-minute-long episodes, let alone over several seasons?

As only one of the two completed seasons is available on Showmax in this country, I can't say whether it can indeed maintain its momentum over multiple seasons, but it certainly has so far. And, seeing that it has already been renewed for a third season after an even more rapturously received sophomore year, there's certainly reason to be optimistic about its future prospects.

With Taika Waititi having mountains of work thrown his way after pumping out a string of critical and commercial home-runs over the past few years, it has fallen on Jermaine Clement to take the reins as sole showrunner of the TV adaptation – with Taika still popping in for the odd directorial job, screenplay and cameo appearance, of course – and he has somehow not only managed to replicate the film's success, but has actually far surpassed it.

Twenty-minute (if you'll pardon the pun) bite-sized chunks are, as it turns out, by far the preferred way to consume this particular creation. Clement keeps quite close to the style, feel and oddball humour of the film, but betters it by both expanding on and condensing its winning formula.

Though certain plot lines and character beats do stretch out across the entire season, What We Do in the Shadows is refreshingly episodic with each episode telling its own complete, self-contained story. This means we have more time to get to know these wonderfully batty characters and delve further into the mythology of the show, but because each instalment uses every inch of its brief twenty-odd minutes to tell a complete 'A' story while still suffusing it with a high gag rate and ongoing 'B' stories, it always leaves us wanting more.   

Irony of ironies, then, that while I found myself somewhat losing patience with the super-short film version of What We Do in the Shadows as it neared its end, I was bereft when I finished the tenth and final episode of the show only to realise that season 2 isn't yet available to stream in this country.

(In your own time, Showmax...)

Now, it has to be said this is most decidedly not a show that will work for everyone. It has a very idiosyncratic sense of humour and revels plenty in its own silliness to the point that it will grate on those not willing to go with it. If you hate the film or the first episode (hell, even if the whole thing sounds bloody awful to you on paper), there's really no need to continue with it. It gets better as it goes along but that's only if you like what it's selling in the first place.

That said, if it works for you at the outset, it should make a die-hard fan out of you well before ringing out the final episode of the season. There's just so much to love here.

Tempted though I may be to just go through each and every episode and spotlight the dozen brilliantly constructed gags (physical, verbal and surreal), the truth is the show works as well as it does for much the same reason as any great TV comedy: the characters and the actors portraying them. Plenty of the humour is character-based and the actors do a phenomenal job of bringing the already clearly very funny scripts to life but, most simply, they're just a blast to hang out with. 

Along with more A-list guest appearances and cameos than a season of Extras, the focus is on the four vampire roommates and their one human "familiar". The latter Guillermo (Harvey Guillen) is basically the straight man of the group and the audience's surrogate for this increasingly bizarre world. He's dorky, overweight, kinda sad and desperate to become a vampire. Rather than just allowing him to be the perennial butt of the joke, the brilliance of the show is that for all of their immense power and immortality, the four vampires are even bigger dorks than he is.

Nandor (Kayvan Novak) is supposed to be this terrifying ancient vampire who murdered and pillaged his way across the Middle East for centuries, but he's really this sweet, hyper-sensitive sweetheart who is such an unremitting softy that even Guillermo has to tell him to man the hell up at times.

Matt Berry's Laszlo, on the other hand, is all stagger and suave danger – or at least that's what he'd like you to think. Berry, who is an old hand at playing pompous blowhards in ridiculous comedies like the IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, is perfect here as someone who is all blustering confidence but with nothing to actually back it up.

And then there are the two vampires who really steal the show from a cast made up purely of show-stealers. In the case of one, it's especially, deliciously ironic. Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) doesn't only have the most boring name imaginable, he is a psychic vampire who steals the life force from others by literally boring them almost to death. Proksch is brilliant at playing the most boring person on the planet while also delivering maximum guffaws.

Finally – and saving the best for last – is the lone woman in the group, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou). Long-time (very, very long-time) wife of Laszlo, Nadja is the perfect foil for his inflated sense of self-importance with her perennially passive-aggressive deadpan delivery and barely hidden contempt for the silly boys around her. She's also clearly the toughest and funniest of the group but also has a sweet sincerity about her. I had never heard of Natasia Demetriou before, but she's sensational here. Easily the best thing in a show that has no shortage of terrific things about it.

All of which is to say that What We Do in the Shadows could easily work as "hangout" comedy, but it's far too immaculately crafted to be merely that. It has more precise plotting and ingenious twists and turns than most water-cooler dramas. And, with its impossible mix of the macabre, the sweet, the demented, and the gut-bustingly funny, it's like nothing else out there.


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