Taika Waititi’s brilliant vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows seems an odd choice at first to adapt into a TV series. The breezy, under-90-minute 2014 mockumentary, starring Waititi and fellow Kiwi treasures Jemaine Clement and Jonny Brugh, mined a heroic amount of pun-driven, playful comedy from ingredients both weird and familiar: the horrors of living with roommates, plus the mundanities of life as a vampire. But, really, how many jokes are there to be made about how messy bloodsucking gets (remember to put down towels and newspapers, it’s not hard) or the funny stuff you can do in a mirror when you’ve got no reflection? Minus the original’s setting and stars, FX’s new half-hour series might have been doomed to rehash old jokes without the weirdos who sold them so well.
It does a bit of that, it turns out—and hits its limit quickly when recreating gags from the film, especially in the first episode. But in the four installments (of ten total from this season) granted to critics ahead of tonight, What We Do in the Shadows also finds unique angles to its story of misfit vampires, werewolf gangs, and the humans in their orbit. Much of its framework may be borrowed, but the show succeeds in building an oddball identity of its own, freakish and funny enough to more than justify its existence.
The show swaps the setting from New Zealand to America, (sadly) dropping the film’s penchant for skewering Kiwi politeness, even in the face of supernatural gore. (Werewolves don’t bother vowing not to be “swearwolves” in America. They’ll just stumble into your garden and piss in the bushes.) Still, Waititi and Clement’s specific brands of quirk remain strong—Waititi directs the first episode, which Clement writes; Clement then directs the next three, and both are listed as executive producers. The result is a show that looks, feels, and sounds precisely within the world of the movie, from the taunting lilt of its theme song, Norma Tanega’s “You’re Dead,” to its puns and absurdist humor, to its frequent snapshots of the vampires in decades and centuries gone by (wait ’til they get to the bit about being “half drunk”).
As one of the vampire’s Familiars—a human “best friend who’s also a slave,” basically, in this case named Guillermo—Harvey Guillén also channels a bit of Waititi’s endearingly pained vampire vibe, grimacing in what he thinks is a smile, offering it to the camera as comfort. And while there’s probably no one alive or undead who can match the chaotic evil sexual energy of Clement’s vampire Vladislav, Natasia Demetriou as Nadja, a coquettish maniac stuck in an exasperating marriage, comes close.
The U.S.—more specifically, Staten Island, where our new vampire posse shares a mansion—proves fertile ground for new strains of jokes that allude to American dysfunctions. Nadja, her blowhard husband Laszlo (Matt Berry), and Nandor (Kayvan Novak), a formerly fearsome warrior of the Ottoman Empire who now spends his vampire nights fussing over his roommates’ hygiene, all sport vaguely European accents. Still, some drunken bigot on the street overhears them and yells with comical reflexivity, “Go back to your country!” Guillermo, meanwhile, fawns over a framed picture of Antonio Banderas’s velvet-clad character from Interview with a Vampire. “That was the first time I ever saw a Hispanic vampire in mainstream movies,” he gushes. “I thought if he can do it, I can too.”
When we meet the group, they’re frantically preparing for a visit from their “master,” an ancient vampire who commands them to conquer the “new world,” starting with Staten Island. With what little knowledge they have of how the modern world even works, the three kick off their conquest in the driest of settings: a local city council meeting. The vampires’ booming demands, gothic attire, and hypnosis tricks are used to full wackadoodle effect here—then reduced to total ineffectuality by the weight of bureaucracy. It’s a rhythm that grows familiar as the show explores more fish-out-of-water scenarios that stump the trio—Nandor stuck penniless at a cash register, Laszlo in a Manhattan nightclub—yet the cast does so well with the deadpan timing crucial to it, it feels freshly funny almost every time.
Apart from preserving the spirit of Waititi’s original film, though, What We Do in the Shadows’ crowning achievement is giving a name, face, and voice to a phenomena unlucky adults know too well: the energy vampire. Played here as an admirably mind-numbing drone by Better Call Saul’s Mark Proksch, the energy vampire is that unpleasant acquaintance who pops in when he’s least wanted and bores you with banal, pointless stories and passive-aggressiveness. His despair-inducing power is inescapable (“We’re the most common kind of vampire,” he confides in a nasally Wisconsin accent) and unparalleled—that is, until he meets his match in another enemy of the living: the emotional vampire, another supernatural drag who feeds off people’s pity. Their soul-sucking energies counter each other so well, it’s only natural they end up dating.
The show generally gets stronger with each passing episode, especially when it breaks ground unfamiliar from the movie. There’s a subplot involving Beanie Feldstein (of Lady Bird and the upcoming Booksmart) as a vampire’s dream food—a college-aged virgin LARPer—that reveals new shades of the vampires’ personalities and feels especially promising. And as the emotional vampire Evie, SNL’s Vanessa Bayer is pitch-perfect in both whininess and malevolence, while Nick Kroll is among several guest stars to check in for freaky undead antics. It’s all a lot of fun, against the odds. This is the show that proves the mockumentary isn’t dead, and vampires (maybe not the sparkly, sexy kind, but the more relatable losers) still have a place in pop culture. Long may the undead reign.