“The problems of living with other vampires are the vampires I’ve chosen to stay with,” explains Nadja, one of the three creatures of the undead at the heart of FX’s new comedy series, What We Do in the Shadows.
A spin-off of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waitii’s hilarious 2014 mockumentary about vampire housemates, it transplants the idea from Wellington, New Zealand, to Staten Island, New York, where Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), her husband Laszlo (Matt Berry) and former Ottoman Empire warrior Nandor (Kayvan Novak) have shared a house for several unpleasant centuries, having utterly failed through indifference in their mission to conquer and enslave the new world for all of vampkind.
The movie’s primary concern was its high-concept intermingling of ancient evil with contemporary mundanity, like the vampire housemates bickering over chore assignments. There’s still plenty of that in the series version — in the premiere, Nandor and his familiar (a human who serves a vampire master), Guillermo (Harvey Guillen), visit the grocery store, while Laszlo runs afoul of touchscreen technology not built with the cold-blooded in mind. But Clement(*), Paul Simms (Atlanta) and the show’s other writers understand that for the idea to work over the long haul of a series, we have to better understand what makes these monsters tick besides the frequent ingestion of human blood.
(*) Waititi directed the March 27th premiere, but this is largely Clement’s baby. He wrote the first episode and directed the other three that I’ve seen.
Much time, for instance, is devoted to the dysfunctional relationship between Nadja and Laszlo, who would probably have split several generations back were he not supernaturally bound to the woman who gave him that fateful bite. Nandor — much fussier and more formal than his size and homicidal pedigree would suggest — has no immortal spouse, but there’s a loopy codependence to his dynamic with Guillermo, who sticks around out of the hope that he’ll one day become a vampire, too.
These interpersonal dynamics take a while to fully establish, though. For the first few episodes, most of the comedy comes from the more fundamental culture clash, and from the show’s most inspired addition to Shadows mythology: a fourth roommate, Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch from Better Call Saul), an “energy vampire” who acts like the most boring person with whom anyone could ever share a cubicle wall. Colin Robinson(*) is hilarious in every scenario, because he always manages to shape his gift for tedium. When he takes the more traditional vampires to a local zoning board meeting as part of their long-delayed plan to overthrow the human authorities, he begins a speech to the council with, “’Ordinance.’ What does it mean?”
(*) An instant addition to the pantheon of TV characters who should only be referred to by their full name. See also Will Tippin from Alias and both Jordan Catalano and Rayanne Graff from My So-Called Life, among others.
Colin Robinson winds up carrying a disproportionate amount of the humor load in the first couple of episodes. But in very short order, the vampires and Guillermo begin to come into focus, as does the specific world of being a vampire in the five boroughs of New York City. And the series becomes more frequently amusing as a result. The fourth episode, for instance, has an amazing running gag about Laszlo’s prideful insistence on wearing a hat that is obviously, painfully cursed, while also contrasting the Staten Island crew with their more glamorous Manhattan counterparts, led by guest star Nick Kroll. And Jenna (Beanie Feldstein), a virginal LARPer (that is, a fan of live-action role-play) who narrowly evades becoming a meal in the first episode, keeps hanging around as Nadja becomes an endearingly macabre mentor to her.
The series maintains the movie’s aesthetics, including the way supernatural powers can be displayed in casual fashion but also seem genuinely scary on occasion. The main characters are all idiots (the guys a bit more than Nadja), emotionally frozen in a time long past, but Clement and company understand that the comedy requires they be dangerous to someone, even if it’s just the zoning board or the endearingly hapless Guillermo.
Is it as consistently hilarious as the movie? No, but it’s unfair to compare an ongoing series and a 90-minute film. And the laughs, when they come, are usually explosive. What We Do in the Shadows in its TV incarnation quickly demonstrates a capacity for growth that its main characters lost centuries ago, if they ever had it to begin with.