Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement have become household names recently thanks to a string of hits (including a Marvel project for each; Thor: Ragnarok for Waititi, Legion for Clement), but the comedians have been collaborating for years. Waititi directed episodes of Flight of the Conchords, Clement’s starred in Waititi’s feature debut Eagle vs. Shark, and in 2014, the pair teamed up for What We Do in the Shadows, the festival hit mockumentary that became an instant cult classic. Clement and Waititi co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred in the film, which punctured the air of self-seriousness threatening to suffocate the vampire genre in the wake of the Twilight craze, and now, five years later the duo managed to find time in their increasingly busy schedules for a new TV spinoff set in their de-glamorized world of ghouls and immortals.
Clement and Waititi share directing and executive producing duties on the new What We Do in the Shadows series (Waititi directed the pilot from a script by Clement, while Clement directs a number of subsequent episodes,) which just made its premiere at SXSW and debuts on FX later this month. With a new cast of killer comedians in front of the camera, the series follows another band of meandering bloodsuckers (though it’s set in the same universe as the film, so it’s possible Viago or Vladislov could pop up somewhere along the way, or maybe even Stu — everyone loves Stu.) The pilot introduces us another batch of mismatched undead roommates: Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), an effete conquerer of the Ottoman Empire; Lazlo (Matt Berry) and Nadjia (Natasia Demetriou), a flamboyant pair of Gothic romantics; and Nandor’s devoted but frustrated human servant Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), aka his familiar, an Interview with the Vampire diehard desperately awaiting his own transformation after a decade of service.
As a film, What We Do in the Shadows was a sly and witty excavation of vampire archetypes throughout the history of cinema and literature, from the Anne Rice-style romantics (Waititi’s Viago) to European Conquerers (Clement’s Vladislov) and Nosferatu-esque crypt creatures (Ben Fransham’s Petyr). In fact, Clement and Waititi were so thorough in their genre deconstruction that their spinoff series runs the risk of becoming a retread when it returns to those familiar archetypes. Fortunately, they also created a mythology of their own within the parody, building a banal world of mythological creatures hiding in the shadows of everyday life, and they take that opportunity to explore that world and mythology in the series.
The pilot episode wastes no time getting to it, introducing an entirely new type of vampire — the energy vampire. Scene-stealer Mark Proksch plays Colin Robinson, the fifth and final roommate, a sweater-clad walking killjoy who either bores or annoys his victims into a stupor, draining their vital force for food. It’s a fine line with a character like that—who can end up boring and annoying the audience as much as the characters—and What We Do in the Shadows occasionally stumbles over it, but Colin’s introduction also opens the door to a whole new branch of supernatural creatures, and when it comes time to play with the possibilities, the series delivers.
Functionally, the show and the film are different beasts, and you feel it in both the storytelling and the comedy. At a slim 86 minutes, the film works as a slice of life comedy that’s low on plot, mining humor from the human instinct to waste time on mundane bullshit — even if we’re given eternal life. Naturally, the serialized format demands more conventional plotting and the pilot introduces a raison d’etre for our ragtag group of the undead: centuries ago, they were tasked with conquering the “new world,” and the ancient creature who commands them is about to wake from his slumber.
The problem is, they didn’t conquer a damn thing — they stayed in Staten Island where the ship landed and spent centuries, well, wasting time on mundane bullshit. But now the clock is ticking, and they’ve got to take over Staten Island… or New York, or maybe North America, no one’s quite sure. That engine drives the series, giving it the familiar feel of a workplace mockumentary comedy, but with a one-of-a-kind flourish for set decoration and horror-comedy gore gags. It also provides plenty of fish-out-of-water comedy as the vampires attempt to navigate human politics, the supernatural underworld, and encounters with New York werewolves, who it turns out are a whole heck of a lot less polite than New Zealand werewolves.
Even if you miss Clement and Waititi’s impeccable delivery (and the distinct brand of New Zealand comedy that comes with it), the cast they’ve assembled here is a delight to behold. Berry is a treasure, as always, and worth the price of admission alone; his signature swaggering idiot persona is a spectacular fit for an old-fashioned vampire lording over Staten Island, sloppily (and loudly) transforming into a bat and wielding his hypnotic powers haphazardly (leading to one of the darkest, funniest throwaway gags I’ve ever seen). Demetriou is a standout in her own right, the droll and lusty voice of reason in the bunch, as is Guillen, who deadpans for the camera better than anyone else on the show. I’ve also got my eye on Lady Bird breakout Beanie Feldstein, who takes on a minor role as a tasty virgin in the first few episodes but promises to become one of the show’s secret weapons if they build out her role.
All in all, What We Do in the Shadows has the perfect combination of elements — a high-concept workplace comedy on a network that will let them get away with multiple F-bombs (and boy, Matt Berry drops a glorious F-bomb) and fountains of blood per episode. It’s a funny, smart show that has remarkable promise, but in the four episodes sent to the press, it hasn’t fully hit its stride yet. It’s good, but it’s not great. Not yet, but it absolutely could be. It’s still establishing its own identity as an extension of Clement and Waititi’s film, settling into the chemistry between its excellent cast of actors, and while the laughs may be uneven, they are mighty when they land.
But all the pieces are there — the confessional workspace/domestic comedy elements call to mind shows like The Office and Parks and Rec, both of which had to find their footing before becoming two of the best comedy series… ever. What We Do in the Shadows has all the right pieces to become another mockumentary great. It nails the tone of the film, mining incredible comedy from the meeting of the supernatural and the banal, delivering one quotable one-liner after the next, and genuinely surprising with its darker gags. While the series is still figuring how best to put all those pieces together, FX’s latest comedy comes out of the gate strong with a string of episodes that hit more than they miss.
FX will debut What We Do in the Shadows on March 27.