This post contains spoilers for the second season of What We Do in the Shadows, including tonight’s finale.
To understand the brilliance of What We Do in the Shadows Season Two, we have to start with Jackie Daytona’s toothpick.
Of course, to understand the brilliance of Jackie Daytona’s toothpick, we have to first explain Jackie Daytona.
In this season’s sixth episode of the vampire mockumentary — created by Jemaine Clement, based on the film of the same name he wrote and directed with Taika Waititi — a vampire named Jim arrives outside the Staten Island home where Laszlo (Matt Berry), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and Nandor (Kayvan Novak) live with Nandor’s human familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), and “energy vampire” Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch). Jim the Vampire is played by Mark Hamill, whose hammiest instincts are a natural fit for a show this ludicrous. He has a perfectly reasonable vendetta against Laszlo, who 167 years ago rented Jim’s guest room in San Diego and left without paying his last month’s rent (and the security deposit!). Laszlo refuses to pay, agrees to fight Jim in a duel, then runs away to a small town in Pennsylvania — because it sounds like Transylvania, which Laszlo knows is cool — where he takes on a new persona as a “regular human bartender” named Jackie Daytona. He plays Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” on the jukebox every night and singlehandedly galvanizes the entire town around the struggling girls’ high school volleyball team(*). The community is in awe of him.
(*) The coach notes that since Jackie Daytona’s arrival, balls started going where they were supposed to, but the episode is more ambiguous than Shadows usually is about whether he’s using his vampire powers to manipulate things.
And he has a toothpick.
As Laszlo explains to the documentary film crew, he has had to play fugitive in the past, and the toothpick is “my foolproof human disguise for whenever the shit hits the wind.” As with most things Laszlo and the others say and believe, it seems utterly idiotic. And when Jim the Vampire wanders into the bar to order “one human alcohol beer,” it seems like he has found his prey but is playing mind games with him in pretending not to notice. Then, a few scenes later, the curtain Laszlo has hung over the bar mirror gets knocked off, Jim sees that “Jackie Daytona” has no reflection, and this happens:
That the toothpick actually, absolutely, amazingly works as Laszlo’s disguise isn’t just the single funniest TV joke of the year. (Though Shadows alone has so many other contenders.) It also perfectly sums up the ethos and appeal of this show, and what a blessed respite its brand of stupid silliness has been throughout this nightmarish spring in America.
Like Laszlo with his toothpick, so much of what happens on What We Do in the Shadows is simultaneously insane and a stroke of genius. Again and again, the show does things that defy basic narrative convention, yet, somehow, they work.
There is, for instance, a traditional structure to many modern comedy episodes, dividing them between two to three plots. The A-story is the most important, both in terms of giving the episode shape and telling us something important about the main character and/or the world of the show. The B-story gives a few supporting players something to do and gives the A-story some necessary breaks. And if there’s a C-story, it’s often something that just made the writers laugh, but was too silly to justify expanding beyond a few brief scenes.
More often than not, Shadows builds entire episodes around what other shows would consider C-stories — assuming cooler heads didn’t dismiss them outright after the initial fit of giggles in the writers room. Laszlo sticking a toothpick in his mouth and renaming himself Jackie Daytona is so dumb, almost anyone else would at best use it as a cutaway gag. Here, it’s the whole point of an episode. Most of this season’s installments mine a shocking amount of comedy from equally thin premises. Colin Robinson’s powers grow exponentially after he gets a promotion at work and realizes his colleagues are now forced to let him bore them to sleep. The vampires freak out when they believe the curse promised by a chain email is real. Laszlo claims credit for having written the original, far filthier, versions of “Come On Eileen” (“Chum on Irene”) and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (“Stroke, Stroke, Stroke Your Cock”). There should be not be enough material in any of these ideas to fill the majority of an episode, yet they prove so surprisingly robust that I’m always left wanting more of each one, rather than less.
(The flip side of this is that the writers often have ideas that could themselves be the basis for entire episodes and here are throwaway jokes, like the discovery that Laszlo turned Elvis into a vampire in the Seventies, and the former King of Rock & Roll now lives in an out-of-the-way room of the house.)
It’s not just dumb story ideas that Shadows takes further than they have any business going, but dumb behavior. Even in a show with abundant supernatural trappings like this one, there’s usually a limit to how consistently stupid main characters are allowed to be. Conventional wisdom is that the audience might indulge one Dumb One in the ensemble, and usually in a smaller role (Joey on Friends, Kevin on The Office), but on Shadows, everyone is The Dumb One. Guillermo understands how the modern world works, but he’s also painfully naive in his belief that Nandor will one day turn him into a vampire. (Colin Robinson is also willfully blind about how his housemates feel about him, and his plans are easily foiled, like when he devotes himself to internet trolling, only to be verbally and then physically wrecked by a literal troll.)
There’s a running gag, for instance, about Laszlo being fiercely protective of a hat that is obviously cursed. (It’s also made out of the skin from a witch’s sphincter, because this is a show aware that vampires are fundamentally gross.) The slightly more sensible Nadja keeps trying to convince him to get rid of the damned thing, but Laszlo stubbornly refuses, even as he repeatedly gets run over by cars while wearing it. The vampires’ proud, self-destructive myopia only gets funnier the more the show goes there.
While Shadows could get away with being a loose collection of vampire-themed comedy sketches, there’s some genuinely serialized storytelling. At the end of last season, Guillermo discovered he was descended from famed vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, and was dismayed to discover a gift for killing creatures of the night. Guillermo’s violent exploits play out in the background of this season, with Nandor and the others mostly oblivious to what he’s doing — including how he keeps saving them from attacks by other vampires still angry over their behavior in Season One. This is funny because it doesn’t change the master/familiar dynamic very much — Guillermo is still easily cowed by Nandor, and is usually mad at himself as he drives stakes into vampire hearts — but also supports his periodic attempts to break away and build his own life.
In the finale, the vamps are sad to discover that Guillermo has moved out again — not because they miss him, but because they’re completely unable to function without him. Within days, Nandor is wearing a Michael Jordan replica jersey from the 1992 Olympics(*) because he has no idea how to launder his own clothes, or even pick up the ones Guillermo took to the dry cleaner. When they ask the technically-adept Colin Robinson to track Guillermo down for them, he realizes none of them know his full name. (Guesses include “Guillermo Buillermo” and “Mickey Guillermo.”)
(*) The joke predates the craze over The Last Dance, since we found out in Season One that the Dream Team had special meaning for Nandor. Still, it can’t help feeling like one of those “history’s most ambitious crossover” memes come to life.
This all builds to Clement, as he did last season, reprising his role from the film as Vlad, who lays a trap to capture and execute our resident bloodthirsty morons for what we know are Guillermo’s crimes against vampire-dom. As is often the case, they’re too myopic and/or horny to understand the danger they’re in — “I’ll be honest,” Colin Robinson admits, while watching a play dramatizing their alleged crimes, “my lookalike is kinda giving me a chub” — and it’s up to a terrified Guillermo to swoop in and murder a theater full of vamps to save his masters. Even then, nobody really gets it: When Guillermo stands up for himself and announces that his full name is Guillermo De La Cruz, a petulant Nandor ends the season by whining, “I don’t care what the fuck your name is. We had to pick up our own laundry!”
Like a regular human bartender with a toothpick who looks an awful lot like his roommate, Nandor has a remarkable capacity for bending reality to whatever he wants it to be. Given how horrible our own reality is right now, and how explosively funny this show is, it’s a very welcome power for both the vampires and What We Do in the Shadows as a whole. Thank goodness we had these imbeciles to kick around for the last 10 weeks.