TV reviews

What We Do In The Shadows (Season 1) – Review

Sometimes, being a vampire can really suck. Try asking Nandor the Relentless, Laszlo Cravensworth, Nadja, and Colin Robinson, who collectively make up the sanguisuge contingent of Staten Island’s supernatural community.

What We Do in the Shadows is a spin-off from the 2014 movie by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, which itself started as a short film, What We Do in the Shadows: Interviews With Some Vampires. Rather an underground (or perhaps underworld) hit, it helped to propel Waititi into the big time, helming 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok (as well as playing Korg in that movie, before reprising him in Avengers: Endgame this year). A sequel feature – variously titled as What We Do in the Moonlight, or We’re Wolves – has been touted since then, but not yet reached fruition.

However, a TV programme set firmly in the same continuity was developed by Clement for the US network FX, and its first run has just finished both over in the States and on BBC Two in the UK. The show’s taken the same mockumentary style as the original feature, but rather than the focus being a nest of vampires down in New Zealand, the setting has now moved Stateside and given us a different set of characters, all of whom – as in the film – are hardly shining examples of being the pinnacle of the supernatural world, and are in many ways just like us. Apart from the bit about being undead and drinking blood, obvs.

Whereas the original movie cast were all homegrown Kiwis (including Waititi and Clement), the TV contingent are all Brits, which is a bold – if surprising – move for an American show. For a UK audience, it probably helps that the lead trio are all known, to varying degrees at least. Self-appointed leader of the group, Nandor, is played by Kayvan Novak, best known for prank call show Fonejacker, as well as being the voice of Hiram Hackenbacker (A.K.A. Brains) in Thunderbirds Are Go, and appearing in Chris Morris’ satirical feature Four Lions. Novak is an acquired taste in his own material, but manages to perfectly suit the part of the flamboyant ex-ruler of lost nation Al Quolanudar.

Perhaps best known of the three is Matt Berry, Toast Of London‘s Steven Toast, as well his standout roles in The IT CrowdGarth Marenghi’s Darkplace, House Of Fools, and current Channel 4 programme Year Of The Rabbit. Berry is never less than an utter delight in anything he does, helped by his rich, velvety voice, which is so distinctive and instantly recognisable. Basically, he could read the phone book, and I’d series link every episode without a moment’s hesitation. Berry is just perfect as the pompous, swaggering Laszlo, who is the husband of Nadja, the vampire that turned him in the first place.

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Nadja is played by Natasia Demetriou, a British comedienne and actress who has had a phenomenal 12 months – she came to prominence in sitcom Stath Lets Flats (written by brother Jamie, who starred in it as well), but this is her breakout part, and deservedly so – she manages to bring an exotic Eastern European vibe to Nadja, as well as convincingly giving the role a somewhat worn and dejected feel which could only come from centuries of marital (after)life with the same person. It’s fair to say Demetriou is a rising star, definitely one to watch, particularly if she attracts attention from Hollywood, given all the exposure Shadows will bring her.

There’s a somewhat more diverse mix in the characters compared to the film, and this is perhaps best represented by Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), who’s rather an unconventional vampire, in that he feeds on people’s energy, typically by the use of sheer boredom, engaging them in inane, futile chit-chat. Unlike his housemates, he can go out in daylight, and holds down a regular job, where he uses it to his fullest advantage, regularly sucking the life out of people through strategically deployed ennui. Proksch has a rare gift in making an intentionally tedious character rather engaging and endearing in his own way, which is no mean feat.

Rounding out the regulars is Guillermo, played by Harvey Guillén. Not a vampire himself, Guillermo is Nandor’s familiar, and has been in service to him for years, with the promise of eventually ending up being turned by Nandor. However, he’s something of a dogsbody and whipping boy, as well as not being the greatest of familiars. One of the joys of Shadows is the way it seeds jokes, having them build up slowly for a delicious payoff later on; one of these relates to a series of mishaps which culminates in the season finale, as the results of a DNA test are revealed, and Guillermo’s lineage casts some doubt on his suitability to the role of familiar, in a hilarious and totally fitting manner.

Other running jokes include Nadja taking a nerdy college girl and LARPer – Jenna (Beanie Feldstein) – firmly under her wing (and not just a metaphorical one, either), by turning her into a vampire. The whole mentoring is a joy to watch, particularly as Jenna makes such a truly rubbish child of darkness, although her growth during the whole process is also quite endearing to see, and very sweet. Another great gag which recurs throughout the series is the reincarnation of Nadja’s former human lover from centuries ago, in the form of Jeff Suckler (Jake McDorman). It builds up to a big showdown in the season finale, where things (literally) come to a head, in a lovely bit of business which was set up so innocuously earlier in the episode, and is totally worth the wait. Oh, and look out for the very unexpected celebrity vampire cameos. That’s all I’m saying about that.

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The faux-documentary format also works well, and at times it feels like The Office meets The Munsters. Only with far more bloodletting and slaughter. Of course, you have to suspend your disbelief, as there are times when the credibility of the format seems a little stretched, but that’s a minor criticism, and doesn’t take anything from the show. There’s so much to enjoy here, from the preparations for a vampire orgy, to a turf war with werewolves all over a spoiled topiary, and a cursed hat made out of a witch’s skin which leads to all sorts of slapstick. In fact, there’s no weak episode during the entire season, which is quite an achievement.

The show’s already been picked up for a second run, and deservedly so. We can only hope that, in the meantime, we get to see the other television series set in the ‘Shadowsverse’, Wellington Paranormal, which is a direct spin-off from the movie, featuring two New Zealand Police officers who had a minor role. It’d certainly help to fill the gap very nicely until Shadows returns in 2020.

Both the series and movie can currently be found on BBC iPlayer, so check them out while you can. And if you don’t think it’s one of the funniest shows of the year, well, you can bite me.

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