'What We Do in the Shadows': TV Review | SXSW 2019

You'll die laughing.
3/27/2019

Wonderfully, absurdly over-the-top and hilarious, FX's newest comedy (based on the film of the same title) is a creative look at vampire life.

There is a point early on in FX's newest comedy What We Do in the Shadows, based on the acclaimed feature film about, well, funny vampires who take part in a documentary, where you wonder through the best of the hilarity if a 10-part series can keep up this level of creativity.

After all, you really have to be all-in on the concept, since being ridiculous and silly are essential elements, but one after another, little bits of unexpected ideas drop into the mix and alleviate all worry.

That and, well, all four of the episodes made available for review are funny and inventive (FX premiered the series at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin).

The film version, created by and starring Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and director-actor Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows), was met with rave reviews (96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) for its incessant stabs at spoofing the vampire genre in general and being cheeky and irreverent in particular, traits that are found in spades here as well.

Clement is creator, writer and executive producer of the TV series for FX, while Waititi is executive producer and director, with Paul Simms as writer and executive producer. The trio realized smartly that the concept would work as a TV series, and they are aided by an excellent cast, including Kayvan Novak as Nandor the Relentless, a warrior from the Ottoman Empire and something of the lead vampire in the Staten Island house where they all live; Matt Berry as Laszlo, "a rogue, a dandy and a fop" from England; and Natasia Demetriou as Nadja, the Eastern Bloc seductress and easily annoyed vamp with deep wisdom.

They are joined, rather hilariously, by Colin (Mark Proksch), an "energy vampire," which can best be described as the most boring and talkative person in your work environment, draining the life out of unsuspecting co-workers and looking like a nerdy accountant in his all-beige attire. Also in the house is Guillermo (Harvey Guillen), Nandor's "familiar," which is basically a human slave. Guiillermo is a dutiful and naive helper who has been Nandor's familiar for 10 years and is hoping his master will turn him into a vampire soon, but is mostly a house servant who is frequently told to stop doing vampire things because he's not a vampire (one of a long list of inventive running jokes).

You've probably guessed by now that, conceptually, we are in very broad territory, especially when you factor in that the vampires are being followed around by a documentary film crew a la The Office, a conceit that you could make a strong case has outlived its uniqueness but, against all odds, actually works very well here.

What We Do in the Shadows survives and thrives on being relentlessly absurd and, yes, often hilarious, but as mentioned above the real achievement might be in how surprisingly fresh the conceit feels episode after episode, which is no easy feat. For example, while it takes the first episode to find a rhythm in the broadness of Nandor, Laszlo and Nadja — they are so over-the-top in accent and attire it's only natural to wonder how that will play — the clever use of both Guillermo and the office scenes with Colin (and how annoyed the other vampires are with Colin as a roommate) keep the first couple of installments moving briskly. By then the more outlandish conceptual issues become not only familiar but welcome (as when it's clear that Nandor's thick but precise accent becomes a wonderful recurring joke, as does his underlying sweetness). And the more farcical things, like turning into bats, hissing or flying around in the air in battle, soon seem less of a one-note visual joke and turn into increasingly welcome recurring bits. That's the sign of high-concept acceptance — when the more creatively dubious elements turn into the things you want to see more of.

All the characters grow on you, which is also a good sign, but the first to stand out is Demetriou's Nadja. Her flair for annoyance with rolled eyes and teeth-baring disdain is a thing of comic beauty. The same early episode breakout is captured by Proksch's spot-on portrayal as someone who can bore the life out of you in under 10 seconds; pretty soon, every time he turns up or there's an office scene, there's an expectation of comic gold (wonderfully realized during an episode where the vamps go to a city council meeting; later, Colin will come face to face with another "day walker" type of vampire and meet his match, scoring quick bonus points for creativity from the writers). 

In one of the early episodes, Guillermo is tasked with finding some virgins for the vampires to feed on and so he goes to the local nerd-fest known as LARPers (live action role players), which is like shooting fish in a barrel. When the vampires float up the side of a building (there's a lot of wire work in this series) to watch the LARPers in costume, Nadja says, "I don't want these virgins. They are going to taste too sad."

Despite the played-out documentary film angle (and the odd feeling that Guillermo is like a younger version of Guillermo from Jimmy Kimmel Live!), it all manages to work and What We Do in the Shadows becomes addictively, ridiculously funny — part droll look at everyday vamp-ness and part inspired family sitcom. This series won't be for everybody, but there's nothing else quite like it, adding a freshness to the comedy selection on TV.

The most encouraging aspect is that Clement and Simms, as writers, seem to have no shortage of fresh ideas to throw into the mix right when you're dying from laughter but worried about how far this all can go. Maybe the comedy will be immortal, who knows? At least through the first four episodes it's note-perfect. FX has seemingly unearthed another gem.

Cast: Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demtriou, Matt Berry, Harvey Guillen, Mark Proksch
Created, written and executive produced by: Jemaine Clement
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Premieres: 10 p.m. ET/PT, Wednesday, March 27 (FX)