If it wasn’t for HBO’s Watchmen, then What We Do In The Shadows would’ve arguably been the TV highlight of 2019. A rather unlikely spin-off from the cult 2014 New Zealand-based film by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, the show was strong out of the starting gate, and became an equally unlikely hit, featuring as it did a predominantly British set of leads in an American series.
For decades, the frame of reference for any sitcoms set in a horror or gothic type setting happened to be The Addams Family or The Munsters, which had all of the conventional trappings of a domestic comedy (including laughter track), albeit with a bit of a kooky twist. With What We Do In The Shadows, however, they managed to give it a new spin by using the ‘mockumentary’ format, as popularised by Ricky Gervais’ series The Office, and then utilised in other shows like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family.
The ‘mockumentary’ was in itself in danger of becoming an overused trope in sitcom making, but Shadows has given it an entirely new lease of (after)life, using the vérité style of filmmaking for maximum comic impact: a significant part of the humour comes not from the (admittedly extremely funny) dialogue, but the silences, pauses and awkwardness inherent in the naturalistic style, as well as the expressions of the characters as they break the fourth wall, looking into the camera, sometimes using this as a punchline in itself.
For a programme made for the FX network, this feels like a rather un-American production, which is no bad thing, but makes its success feel all the more remarkable. All three of the series’ main leads – Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou and Kayvan Novak – are relatively unknown quantities outside of the UK, which made their casting an undoubtedly risky proposition, but it demonstrates the makers went with casting the right people for the job, rather than going the route of trying to get some ‘name’ actors in to fill the roles.
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Not that Shadows has struggled to get stars to appear in a variety of supporting roles: the first season alone featured Tilda Swinton, Danny Trejo, Paul Reubens, Wesley Snipes, Evan Rachel Wood and Dave Bautista (along with Clement and Waititi reprising their vampire roles from the original movie). This time round has been no less illustrious, with Benedict Wong as a necromancer, Haley Joel Osment as a vampire’s familiar, Lucy Punch as a witch, Jams Frain as a goat, and Mark Hamill well and truly putting the ‘Ham’ in his surname, with a wonderfully OTT turn.
Helping contribute to the un-American feel is that a lot of the humour hinges on the ‘fish out of water’ approach, as the three lead vampires – Laszlo, Nadja and Nandor – all hail from outside the United States, so they do provide an outsider’s perspective on the country, giving more than a little social commentary on the USA (they even manage to get an entire episode out of a misunderstanding based on the old ‘Superbowl’/‘Superb Owl’ joke).
Having Waititi and Clement as executive producers helps with this, as no doubt does Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong of Peep Show fame being executive consultants, as they’ll most likely have a similar take on the nation as observers from other countries. The ‘fish out of water’ take applies equally to the vampire trio struggling with the vagaries of modern life – from e-mails to dry cleaning – having been turned some centuries ago, and failing to keep up with the pace of change, like flies stuck in amber.
This all beautifully undercuts any po-faced overtones you might otherwise associate with the supernatural, as it robs Laszlo, Nadja and Nandor of any pomposity or superiority, and shows them to be incompetent and ineffectual when it comes to being vampires in the present day. The makers also bring in a lot of other horror and occult elements this time round: after including werewolves in Season 1, here they’ve included witches, zombies, necromancy, and even a troll (for an obvious, but still clever, joke).
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The scripts all seem better tailored this time round to the strengths of the three lead actors (although there is also a significant amount of improvisation, so it’s difficult to say just where the line is between the two). Whereas American shows typically use swearing to seem gritty or adult, in this case the sheer level of creativity and inventiveness in the deployment of profanity for maximum effect is a thing of beauty, seeming almost lyrical or poetic, yet still delivered for maximum impact like a guided missile.
Berry and Novak can slay you just with their pronunciation of words: with Berry, it’s largely the misplaced emphasis he puts on certain syllables, whereas for Novak it’s the rhythm of his delivery, which somehow just gets funnier the longer he talks. Demetriou is the true chameleon of the troupe, as can be evidenced from her starkly contrasting appearance as the sweet, innocent Sophie in Stath Lets Flats (with a special lockdown short of that series being posted online recently), as well as the variety of parts she played in BBC Three sketch show pilot Ellie and Natasia.
In fact, we can almost take for granted that this troika will be consistently outstanding; however, the remaining pair of characters in the vamp household – energy Vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), and Nandor’s familiar, Guillermo de la Cruz (Harvey Guillén) – both get a pleasing amount of attention and character development this time round. With Colin’s sheer tedium making him seem like a blank slate, it now becomes clear that it actually masks something quietly sinister and dangerous beneath the surface.
In the case of Guillermo, he’d been left at the climax of the first season with the revelation he has Van Helsing DNA, so it’s led him to question his true path, as it’s understandably untenable for a vampire slayer to also be one’s familiar. He has been the audience identification figure, our gateway to this dark and arcane world, and with Guillermo‘s story arc this season – helped by Guillén‘s endearing performance – he’s become even more likeable, as he’s trying to fight his destiny, but situations keep thwarting his plans.
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What We Do In The Shadows is beautifully layered, with so much nuance and subtlety; throwaway lines from Season 1 in relation to Nandor’s horse John, as well as the somewhat peculiar proclivities of witches, end up taking on a greater significance, so it’s worth watching both seasons together, in order to ensure that you absolutely get the most out of the viewing experience. It just has so many quotable and genuinely laugh-out-loud lines that it actually puts most other contemporary comedies to shame.
With a third season having already been commissioned by FX, 2021 simply can’t come soon enough; hopefully, it’ll get here like a bat out of Hell.
What We Do In The Shadows (Season 2) is currently airing on Thursday nights on BBC 2, and both seasons are available on BBC iPlayer.