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When FX’s What We Do in the Shadows premiered, I had initial concerns about how the tone and aesthetics of the extraordinarily dry, extraordinarily no-frills feature film could be translated to weekly airings on American TV.
The answer, ultimately, was that FX’s What We Do in the Shadows quickly became a more polished and expansive story than Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s mockumentary, with just enough quaint charm to connect it back to the original.
Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, July 11 (The CW)
Cast: Mike Minogue, Karen O'Leary, Maaka Pohatu
Creators: Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement
Much more indebted and connected to the What We Do in the Shadows feature is the direct follow-up Wellington Paranormal, a TV comedy produced for TVNZ 2 and finally making its way to American TV on The CW three full years after it debuted in New Zealand.
It’s easy to see why nobody rushed to get Wellington Paranormal on the domestic airwaves. It’s built around two characters from the movie who were memorable almost entirely for not being memorable and it mostly looks cheap enough that it might have been bankrolled entirely in Marmite. In its note-perfect emulation of the feature’s dryness, however, there are a lot of very real laughs, as well as enough supernatural ridiculousness that if you have general reservations about law enforcement comedy, they won’t stick around for long. Nothing in Wellington Paranormal sticks around for long, and that’s actually an asset.
The series stars Mike Minogue and Karen O’Leary as officers Minogue and O’Leary of the Wellington police department. In the first episode, they encounter a young woman projectile vomiting and claiming to be inhabited by the demon Bazu’aal. Naturally, Minogue and O’Leary arrest her for public intoxication and they’re oddly unfazed when she starts spider-walking up walls and escapes the precinct. It’s here that Sergeant Ruawai Maaka (Maaka Pohatu) takes Minogue and O’Leary behind the comically secretive doors of the police department’s Paranormal Unit.
Over the next six episodes — a second season and a series of COVID-19 public safety messages followed — O’Leary and Minogue experience zombies, werewolves, vampires and 1970s disco ghosts, all without becoming appreciably better as cops or as investigators of the paranormal.
The series was created by Waititi and Clement, who also directed four episodes in the first season (with the other two from Jackie van Beek, part of the What We Do in the Shadows directing team), and it owes a very acknowledged debt to The X-Files, right down to the theme music, composed by Clement.
As Officer Minogue explains, “To put it in layman’s terms, we’re kinda like Mulder and Scully. She’s like Scully because she’s analytical, she’s got brains. And I’m a man with brown hair.”
The core joke of the series is that Wellington is a city with only limited crime, but nearly unlimited oddness, so much of which is human in nature that nobody exactly freaks out when blood bags go missing from the local hospital, a cow ends up in a tree or a pizza delivery man is robbed by what he identifies as a dog wearing jeans. O’Leary and Minogue simply accept everything that’s happening to them, making occasional references to The Walking Dead or Stranger Things, without ever getting disturbed that these incidents out of genre TV shows are interrupting their otherwise uneventful patrolling of Wellington’s streets.
Wellington Paranormal is shot in a flat, local news style — the New Zealand Documentary Board is a producer — and the ostensible cameraperson is every bit as unamazed by the supernatural twists as their on-camera subjects. It’s all “badly” lit and “badly” composed, which just means that most of the series’ best jokes are confined to the background of the frame, as the camera fixates on the cops and their deadpan reactions to each week’s case. The ugliness of the production is set against the amusingly proficient visual effects, in which creatures out of a ’50s sci-fi quickie or a Hammer horror film are captured with matter-of-fact realism.
The execution is limiting. Episodes don’t really build to any particular crescendos nor is there anything cumulative or escalating about the first season. Though a couple of the other cops in the precinct make multiple appearances, the first season of Wellington Paranormal doesn’t exactly expand its ensemble past its three leads and, especially when it comes to Minogue and O’Leary, you aren’t going to ever feel like these are characters you’re getting to know on a deeper level. The three-year delay getting this show on American TV means that the references and some of the sight gags are inoffensively dated as well.
When compared to FX’s What We Do in the Shadows, nothing is as metaphorically relatable as Mark Proksch’s “energy vampire,” as capable of generating empathy as Harvey Guillén’s eager-to-please Guillermo or as conceptually dazzling as the week audiences spent with a human named Jackie Dayton.
Somehow, though, the level of humor on Wellington Paranormal remains consistent and there are no real diminishing returns to Minogue and O’Leary’s obliviousness. The cases of the week have just enough variation that the two leads’ stone-faced eccentricities remain amusing with Pohatu, less clueless and more amiably accepting, getting funnier and funnier the more involved he becomes.
Episodes are only 20-minutes apiece and I’m not sure they even have enough plot to fill half of that time, but there were no duds in the six I saw, and not a single one that didn’t have me smiling for most of the running time.
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