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What We Do in the Shadows works even better as a charmingly bite-size TV show

FX’s new comedy adaptation of the cult film What We Do in the Shadows takes glee in the vampire tropes it’s mocking.

Kayvan Novak as Nandor, Harvey Guillen as Guillermo, and Matt Berry as Laszlo in What We Do in the Shadows.
John P. Johnson/FX
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

What We Do in the Shadows (WWDITS) is beloved by fans for its enthusiastic embrace of vampire lore, its endlessly quotable dialogue, and its straightforward, fully deadpan (perhaps we should say undeadpan) use of a Real World-style mockumentary format to deliver its story of a coven of vampires juggling the stressors of cohabitation and city life with the usual vampire tribulations: werewolf feuds, ancient vengeance pacts, getting blood out of the kitchen tiles after a feeding frenzy.

The film was a cult phenomenon: Though it never achieved a major US release, it drew steady amounts of love from fans who subsequently discovered it through internet memes and word of mouth. The things that made it a bit of a hard sell in the cinema — its reportedly tiny budget, its combination of several tired film genres (horror-comedy, vampires, mockumentaries), and, above all, its emphasis on situational comedy skits over any kind of plot — all worked wonderfully together online, where the film could be packaged and distributed as a series of hilarious jokes, all in GIF-size, easily digestible format.

These are also, conveniently enough, the aspects of the film that stand to benefit most from FX’s new television adaptation. And have they ever.

The primary delight of FX’s episodic comedy version of What We Do in the Shadows is how closely it hews to the formula set by its equally delightful predecessor. In their story of a hilariously milquetoast modern vampire coven, co-creators Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) served up a comedic formula rooted equally in reverence and irreverence: love for 150-plus years of vampire mythos mingling with a cheeky fondness for horror tropes, Twilight, and awkward roommate situations.

Upon the film’s release in 2015, critics were divided over how well its sketch tone worked in a feature format. A common complaint was that it felt too thin to fill a full 90 minutes.

But chopped into weekly 22-minute chunks, the concept of a demotivated vampire coven battling ancient curses, the local city council, and a slight werewolf infestation seems like rich laugh material, entertaining enough to deliver satisfying joke setups without losing its novelty — especially given that Clement and Waititi are still collaborating on the new spinoff.

The new FX series hits charmingly familiar beats — with a few extras

The first episode of FX’s series, which is written by Clement and directed by Waititi, spends most of its time establishing itself in ways that will seem familiar to fans of the film. We get an obligatory hand wave toward the plot, before we meet the main characters, who lead unassuming lives in Staten Island in occasionally contentious living arrangements.

Our dysfunctional unholy family is headed up by an entirely new trio of vampires, who each have analogues in the film. The heart of the group is Nandor (Kayvan Novak), a once-fearsome Turk turned affable den mother. (He’s also known as “Nandor the Relentless, because ... I just never relent.”) He’s sharing a naturally dilapidated townhouse with the vaguely Elizabethan Laszlo (Matt Berry) and Laszlo’s classically goth wife, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou). Nadja spends a good deal of her time looking at the camera while Laszlo starts problems and turns into a bat, and honestly, we’ve seen worse foundations for a multi-century relationship.

Additionally, there’s Nandor’s long-suffering familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), and the “energy vampire” Colin (Mark Proksch), a self-described “daywalker” who feeds off humans by boring them into a stupor. Both of these roles are major new additions to the show from the film. Colin seems to be in part a reaction to the common tendency to compare WWDITS to The Office. He accordingly gets his own camera crew and an entire cubicle-filled sandbox from which to drain life forces, and he goes about his task with a dedication that would make The Office’s Angela proud.

Other new characters in the mix, whom we meet over the show’s first four episodes, are a group of LARPers, most notably Jenna (the hilarious Beanie Feldstein), who brings lots of wry energy to the role of the hapless damsel unwittingly turned into a creature of the night. There’s also a new werewolf pack, because of course there’s a werewolf pack, and an insufferable crew of hipster Manhattan socialite vampires, who are luckily quickly dispatched thanks to a cursed witch’s hat. Oh, and there’s a decrepit ancient vampire prince who shows up to demand why our leads haven’t yet conquered North America.

If you’re worried that all these details hint that FX’s version of WWDITS might be attempting a much more serious storyline than its inspiration, fear not. What’s remarkable about this series is that despite its new cast, its larger budget, and its presumably loftier ambitions, it still successfully relies on the same lighthearted ingredients that made the film work so well.

WWDITS relies on the comic timing and chemistry of its ensemble, to pitch-perfect effect

Who among us hasn’t wrestled with body disposal while doing the housework?
Matthias Clamer/FX

Novak, Berry, and Demetriou aren’t exactly household names for US television viewers. But they’re all British comedy veterans with years of experience delivering the kind of deadpan wit that WWDITS relies on. As an ensemble, they bring perfect comic timing to the show, as does Guillén, who imbues his part as the familiar that just wants to become a real vampire with a deft mix of hilarity and genuine pathos.

Both the cast and the writing are crucial to the show’s success. Like the film before it, this version of WWDITS consists primarily of jokes and situational awkwardness, all of which could very easily fall flat in the hands of less experienced writers and performers. Fortunately, thanks to his Emmy-nominated stint on HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, Clement has years of comedy writing for television under his belt, and Waititi years of directing. The two play to their strengths here, and the results are enough to get audiences to overlook the moments when the jokes don’t land or the humor is a little musty.

The joy of seeing the essence of WWDITS brought to the small screen will be enough to keep fans of the film tuning in. And for other viewers, it might be worth it to find out just how much comedic gold can be mined from the concept of socially awkward vampires in New York City.

In another show, the answer might be “not much”; once the novelty of the joke wears off, TV series built around a single parody concept (think Galavant) often have little substance beneath their experiments. But the secret strength of What We Do in the Shadows is that where other vampire parodies might delight in skewering their subjects, in this one, the camera is always on our heroes’ side — and our vampires are clearly delighted with themselves. Every time Laszlo turns into a bat, you get the feeling he turns into a bat at every available opportunity, just because he can.

And why not? This glee is the essence of what makes WWDITS so enjoyable. The children of the night — what humor they make!

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