There’s something to be said about messing with perfection, and it’s that only the team behind What We Do in the Shadows should be allowed to do it.
Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clements’ 2014 New Zealand-set comedy film is legendarily homegrown, featuring art handmade by the pair and a cast that includes non-professional actors they happened to know in real life. The vampire mockumentary was a shoestring budget success story: a brilliant mix of loose improvisation and creative perfectionism that revitalized several subgenres and, most importantly, made us laugh a lot.
The spinoff FX series of the same name, which returns for a second season on April 15th, is created by Clement and co-executive produced by him and Waititi. This version of Shadows transplants the bloodsucking action to America, specifically Staten Island. Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo (Matt Berry), and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) are a trio of centuries-old European vampires who room with an American “energy vampire” named Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) and Nandor’s put-upon human familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén).While the series’ excellent first season reinvented a few familiar beats from the movie — including a beastly ex-lover, a new vamp, a gang of werewolves, and an undervalued familiar — the second is wholly unique, expanding the monster mythology to hilarious results.
Zombies, necromancers, ghosts, vampire hunters, and a Superb Owl (or Super Bowl, to the layperson) all make their debut in the first four episodes of season two, and despite all that fresh blood, the sophomore season so far never seems overstuffed or disjointed. None of the four episodes for review are written or directed by Waititi or Clement, but Shadows purists needn’t worry; the writer’s room is clearly strong, delivering jokes that match the duo’s signature blend of sweet and outlandish comedy. TV comedies can be watch-worthy without being consistently funny, but there’s a special triumph in finding the rare series that can make you scream laughing, and this one belongs to that exclusive club.
In contrast to the film’s microscopic budget, the small-screen version of Shadows clearly has the funds to get creative and makes use of them with some of the most gloriously dark and silly practical and special effects horror-comedy has to offer. In fact, the series makes great use of pretty much every type of comedy in the book, from wordplay (Nadja’s inability to pronounce the name “Jeff” will always be funny) to situational irony (a plot about chain letters manages to be uproarious rather than dated) to pratfall and beyond, with a few fun guest stars thrown in for good measure. It’s as if the team behind Shadows is throwing every funny thing at the wall and seeing what sticks, and fortunately for them, pretty much everything does.
A lot of the show’s success belongs to its dynamic, pitch-perfect cast. While eroticism-obsessed, outrageous married couple Nadja and Laszlo continue to be the obvious scene-stealers, nailing every line delivery with an undercurrent of lightly psychotic joy, this season also makes room for every other major character to shine.Nandor, the most serious vamp, is goofier and more vulnerable this time around, while energy-drainer Colin Robinson, a purposely unbearable guy-around-the-office type, gets plenty of one-liners and bits of his own. Proksch plays the latter like a character who wandered out of The Good Place’s Bad Place, mining the timeliest and most specific pet peeves for comedy and delivering it in an ever-deadpan way. Meanwhile, Guillén’s Guillermo is as harried as ever, only now his underappreciated familiar duties are hampered by his newfound Van Helsing heritage. Guillén plays a great straight man, but it’s equally satisfying to see Guillermo come into his own as an unlikely badass when he accidentally stumbles further into the world of vamp hunting.
The contrast (and more disconcertingly, the similarities) between arcane mythology and modern American life is a rich source to tap, and luckily, Shadows doesn’t seem anywhere close to running out of ideas.While Guillermo’s vampire-hunting destiny seems poised to be the season’s throughline, each of the first four episodes offers mostly self-contained hijinks. They’re quick and clever, explaining the logistics of vampire souls, hypnosis, and corpse reanimation in between blink-and-you’ll-miss-them quips about everything from incels to Bitmojis. If the series can maintain the comedic energy and lovable spirit it’s carried for the first two seasons, it could easily entertain us for years to come.
What We Do in the Shadows is never serious for more than a moment, which makes it particularly of the moment for those of us who are currently seeking the most convincing kind of escapism. It’s a version of the world that, no matter how dark, always ends with a big laugh — and isn’t that a gift?