The new vampire comedy, What We Do in the Shadows on FX, is getting rave reviews for its first season. with very good reason. It transcends all the genres from which it descends: comedy, horror, reality show spoof. It’s based on the film of the same name, created by Jemaine Clement and Takai Waititi. I haven’t seen the movie yet and you don’t have to have first seen the movie to love the show enough to watch each episode over and over. Whacky and raucous as it is, Shadows touches on deeper truths about modern life than one may anticipate at first glance.
In case you haven’t seen it, What We Do in the Shadows is the story of three vampires, their human familiar, and one energy vampire living in a big house in Staten Island, New York (as in The Real World). They’re constantly being filmed by a camera crew which is always off-screen, and frequently address the camera and us, the audience, directly (as in The Office). Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak) is the head of the household and rightly so, Nandor being the closest approximation to the historical Vlad the Impaler upon whom Bram Stoker’s Dracula is loosely based.
Nandor has old world charm, a slightly superior attitude, and a soft voice that belies his impressive stature. His human familiar, Guiermo (Harvey Guillen) is constantly on call to attend to all Nandor’s needs, wants, whims, and orders. Guiermo has been in Nandor’s service for ten years and though he is loyal, kind and obedient, never gets the consideration he deserves from Nandor.
In the pilot episode we learn that it’s Guiermo’s ten year anniversary and that his dearest held wish is to become a vampire like Armand in Interview with a Vampire, the first Hispanic vampire Guiermo ever encountered in popular culture and Guiermo’s inspiration: “If he can do it, so can I.” Alas, Gueirmo’s dream is not to come true, not yet anyway, and so as his “work anniversary” present he must settle for a glitter portrait of himself with his master, to decorate his “depressing” room under the stairs.
The other vampires in the house include Laszlo Cravensworth (Matt Berry) and his wife, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou). Nadja is Laszlo’s maker and so an older, more experienced vampire, though both are tremendously experienced in matters of love, sex, and depravity, and speak of these matters openly, freely, and frequently. Laszlo is devoted to Nadje and not immune to getting jealous when she disappears unexpectedly for one of her solitary outings, or during her fond reminiscences of wild sex and intense flirting with the ancient Baron, and Simon the Devious, respectively. Nadje is devoted to Lazslo as well, but appears unfazed by his solitary outings, his own reminiscences of wild sex with the Baron, and his naughty hobbies. They may be an “old” married couple, but both are lusty, sexy and always up for something wild.
The last resident in the house is Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), a seemingly mild-mannered factotum whose bland exterior hides a raving energy vampire that even the real vampires try their best to avoid. Collin feeds on boredom, distress and anxiety of all kinds, and actually induces these things in others so that he might feed. He lives in the basement of the house when he’s not hovering around the cubicles at his office, preying on coworkers, psychically draining them to the point they can barely sit upright.
Most of what makes this show so much fun to watch, re-watch and re-re-watch is the writing and acting. The dialogue sparkles and things move so quickly one can’t help but want to watch it again to catch the gems that slip through the net the first time. The actors are extremely appealing, each with impeccable comic timing. The show is a feast for the senses, from its beguiling theme song to its rich set design, costumes and make-up. The razor-sharp, off-beat humor throughout sets the show apart from other half-hour comedies. Often the characters find themselves in Larry David-worthy awkward situations that look impossible. Sometimes the outcome is explosive and other such moments end with a furtive glance at the camera, indicating that this isn’t over.
Now that I’ve been watching the show for several weeks, here are some takeaways:
1. The case of Guiermo’s desire for some measure of respect from those he serves with such unselfish devotion, comes up again and again, an unfulfilled wish that could have far-reaching consequences if it continues, as it’s bound to next season. As the vampires’ only link between their world and that of the day-walkers, Guiermo doesn’t ask for much and doesn’t get much. His acceptance of the status quo is getting tenuous the more his hopes for some modicum of appreciation are dashed. There are ominous hints here and there of what could happen if Guiermo ever goes rogue (ie, gets pissed off and decides he’s not going to take it anymore). Guiermo is human, which at times is a liability living among the undead, but it’s a powerful asset in the daylight, which has the power to reduce even the most ancient and powerful vampire to ashes (just ask the Baron—foreshadowing, perhaps? Perhaps not.)
Lesson: You have more power than you think, even over vampires.
2. Laszlo is from England, with a noble background and a loud, confident voice even when he says things that are quite insane. He takes shit from no one, as it were, and any unfortunate soul who deigns to mouth off at Lazslo when he is out walking in the park at night seeking victims had best beware. A bit clumsy at times, Lazslo is lightning fast, and even the best conditioned day-walker can’t outrun Laszlo when he’s in his element. Laslo is occasionally willing to “dress down” in his archaic finery, but never plays small—he wouldn’t know how. Lazslo is an unnatural force of nature, prizes primacy over recency and is clearly no slave to technology nor the bland conventions of modern life.
Lesson: Whatever you have to say, do it with conviction. If you want to want to wear your Victorian outfit and top hat in the park at night, do it with swagger. And dare anyone to say a %^$* word.
3. Nadja is from humble beginnings; her ancestors are Roma (Gypsy), and she knows the pain of being treated as less-than, which explains her sympathy for the underdog. A college student named Jenna caught Nadja’s attention one evening as the trio of actual vampires hovered outside the upstairs window of one of Jenna’s fellow LARPer’s (Live Action Role Playing) apartments. Nadja remains after the others have gone, sadly observing Jenna’s mistreatment at the hands of one of the more bullying LARPers, shunned and excluded by the group as the ringleader influences the others against Jenna. Jenna accepts this all with good humor, unaware that Nadja watches outside. Nadja befriends Jenna afterwards as she walks home through the park, with promises to empower Jenna beyond her wildest dreams. Jenna is now on the road to full-blown vampirism, and what that means for her fellow LARPers remains to be seen. I expect the bullying ringleader should watch his back.
Lesson: Be kind to everyone. That person you think is a nerdy wimp might have vampire allies (and vampire superpowers).
4. Nandor the Relentless got his name from being relentless. Nandor, once a powerful warlord, now fixates on small details and won’t let go. For better or worse, Nandor is all too attuned to whether Guiermo shut the door properly, or whether crepe (which he pronounces phonetically, ie, creepy) paper will make the best decorations for the Baron’s welcome party. He used to lead marauding armies, but now he’s vampire master of two streets in Staten Island. Yes, it’s much smaller than the Manhattan territory ruled by Simon the Devious, but Nandor rules these two streets with panache. And besides, before the end of season one, Simon has gone out in a blaze of glory, while Nandor still rules – those two streets – which makes him the winner.
Lesson: When you’re trying to get a straight answer from someone who’s giving you the double-talk and being slippery as an eel, don’t let them off the hook. Think of Nandor -- and be relentless.
5. Colin is practically a professional practitioner of shadenfreude, but nearly met his match when he starting working with, and then dating, Evie, an emotional vampire. For the first time, Colin got a taste of his own medicine. Evie’s toxic neediness so shamelessly sucked unsuspecting coworkers into her vortex of misery that it took the wind out of Colin’s sails when he tried to apply his own energy-sapping methods. The office nor the relationship was big enough for both of them so Colin broke up with Evie, and Evie didn’t skip a beat. Her constant teasing of Colin as he walked away only strengthened his resolve that the break-up was inevitable, but when he turned back that last time there was the faintest smile on his face, as if he had to admire her soul-sucking brilliance.
Lesson: Whatever is it you’re determined to do, do it well.Even your rivals will respect you for it.
What We Do in the Shadows is rollicking good fun--Wait, that sounded a bit like Laszlo. Is “rollicking” getting to be an archaic term? It’s okay if it is—one more thing I love about this show is that the characters aren’t afraid of being old-fashioned or “out-of-date.” When you’ve been around for millennia or at least centuries (for those vampire whipper-snappers out there), you get to embrace the whole of your experience. If you’ve been watching for the first season, I join you in celebrating that there’ll be another, and if you’re just now jumping on board, you have much to look forward to. It’s definitely worth a bite of your time!