I’m not the type of person who watches the same movie over and over again until I’ve memorized it. Why do that, when so many movies exist that it’s not possible for any one human being to see them all in their lifetime? But I did watch Taika Waititi’s What We Do In The Shadows two nights in a row when it first hit streaming in 2016, and still put it on occasionally when I’m hungover or can’t sleep. I even watched it in a hotel room with my sisters after our grandmother’s funeral, a pick-me-up that sounds more macabre in hindsight than it felt at the time.
So the opening shot of the pilot for FX’s new TV adaptation of What We Do In The Shadows felt like a warm, bloodstained favorite blanket, as Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), hapless familiar to vampire Nandor (Kayvan Novak), leads an unseen camera crew down a dark hallway to his master’s chamber. He leans in close to the massive carved coffin that dominates the room to whisper something, anticipating an obviously pre-planned dramatic reveal of ancient Romanian evil. But the coffin lid is stuck. “I think it is the latch,” a muffled voice says from inside. A butter knife is fetched. The tension has dissipated. By the time Nandor does rise from his sarcophagus, the effect is more comedic than awe-inspiring.
Series creator and executive producer Jemaine Clement wrote the pilot for What We Do In The Shadows, and co-exec producer Taika Waititi directs. The duo also co-wrote and co-directed the film version of What We Do In The Shadows, which helps explain why the pilot episode of the show is so familiar in its joke setups and the rhythms of its dialogue, along with the obvious plot and stylistic parallels. (Both the film and the pilot open with a vampire house meeting, for example, and both use historical portraits and woodcuts both real and fake to cut away from “interviews.”) Using the mundane to highlight the absurdity of self-serious vampire lore is the basic premise upon which the humor of the series operates, and we see this over and over again throughout the pilot episode in scenes like the one where Guillermo and Nandor go shopping in a supermarket lit in sickly fluorescent green—as opposed to the moldy green tint of scenes inside the vampires’ crumbling Staten Island manse—featured in trailers for the show.
There are a lot of scenes in the What We Do In The Shadows pilot, but not a whole lot of plot. Basically, Nandor and his vampire roommates Lazslo (Matt Berry) and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) are preparing for a visit from their vampire master, the Baron (Doug Jones), who’s coming from the Old World to see how the vampire takeover of America is going. (It’s not going at all, really; “the place is fucking massive,” as Lazslo explains.) The rest of the episode is devoted to introducing the characters, for which Clement and Waititi have created variations on the archetypes established in the film: Nandor, a medieval Ottoman warrior with a fussy attitude towards neatness, blends the backstory of Clement’s Vadislav in the film with the temperament of Waititi’s Viago. Meanwhile, highly sexual (that’s pronounced “seks-ewww-al”) cool guy Lazslo and his short-tempered, equally sex-obsessed consort/creator Nadja blend elements of Vadislav and Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon in the film. And when Jones’ Baron is finally revealed, he’s a desiccated bat-mummy not dissimilar from Petyr in the film.
But while the look, the beats, and the premise are familiar, the TV version of What We Do In The Shadows expands upon the vampire lore established in the movie in some funny and insightful ways. There’s the scene where the vampires’ fingers don’t work on a touchscreen, for example, complicating their pickup of the Baron’s coffin. The addition of new character types, like Nadja and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), a psychic vampire with the power to bore the life out of his victims who’s basically the sinister inverse of regular guy Stu in the movie, also present opportunities to enlarge the world of What We Do In The Shadows. I’m not as familiar with Demetriou as I am with Berry, but the chemistry between the two is excellent, and it’s exciting to add a female vampire to the mix this time around.
Waititi and Clement’s fingerprints are all over the pilot—the scene where a woman yelling for her boyfriend in a moonlit park is drenched with his blood is classic Waititi in its comedic timing—so it’ll be interesting to see how the show settles into itself as the season unfolds and new writers and directors (Clement directs much of the first season) are introduced. For now, though, What We Do In The Shadows the TV series is both different and the same as What We Do In The Shadows the movie, and overall that’s a good thing. As long as the series stays true to its predecessor’s sense of humor and continues to focus on its characters, it should make the transition between mediums just fine.
- “Being a vampire’s familiar is like being a best friend. Who’s also a slave.”
- “Where’d they find the alcohol?” “No, they’re half drunk. They’ve been half drunk.”
- I absolutely love the gigantic black lace collar Berry’s wearing in the interview segment introducing Lazslo and and Nadja.
- Lazslo and Nadja’s pansexual horniness adds a fun, and potentially volatile, element to the series. I like to think that they’ll simply end up having a really weird threesome with the Baron when their respective affairs have been revealed, and everyone will go back to their coffins satisfied. But I also imagine that the writers of the series want to milk that conflict for greater dramatic ends. Either way, poor Gregor-Jeff is probably done for.
- I’m not really getting a sense of place from the series just yet, although this may change in future episodes as we get deeper into the plot.
- The series’ explanation of psychic vampires as the boring guy at the office is great, and really puts some interesting perspective on a guy I knew in college who was notorious for cornering people at parties and rambling on about ‘60s psych rock, regardless of whether the other person was paying attention.
- Can I just say, bless FX and Jemaine Clement for bringing Matt Berry line readings into America’s living rooms every Wednesday for the next couple of months? BAAAT!