Why What We Do in the Shadows should be your next box set
Ivan Radford | On 19, May 2019
Season 3 of What We Do in the Shadows begins at 10.05pm on BBC Two. This is a spoiler-free review of Season 1.
Living forever sounds like the best thing ever, until you actually have to do it. Suddenly, you’re faced with all the usual life problems – what to do, where to do it, who to live with – but for much, much longer. Boredom lasts centuries at a time. Don’t like your flatmate? Chances are you’ll be stuck with them for eternity. It was a goldmine for Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, who gave us What We Do in the Shadows in 2014, a film about flatsharing vampires that played like a comedy cover of Only Lovers Left Alive. Since then, we’ve had BBC One’s Ghosts, which charts the hilarious day-to-day challenges of a group of undead spirits living in the same old house – proof that the concept works as the basis for a TV show. And so we have FX’s new series, which takes Waititi’s movie and adapts it for the small screen – and maybe, just maybe, makes it even better.
Developed by Clement and Waititi, the series tweaks things ever so slightly to prime it for the long haul. Our flatmates are now Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), so called because he “never relents”, Englishman Lazlo (Berry), a lothario in lothario’s clothing, and Guillermo (Harvey Guillen), Nandor’s human familiar, who can’t wait to become not human. Joining them are Mark Proksch as Colin, an “energy vampire” who can feed off other people’s energy by boring them, and Natasia Demetriou as Lazlo’s partner, Nadja. It’s the latter two who make the real difference to the ensemble: Nadja brings a welcome counterpart to the (wonderfully pathetic) macho posturing that powers the group’s dynamics, and Colin bridges the world between the supernatural and the painfully normal with a flawless deadpan delivery.
Nadja’s presence is essential, as she benefits hugely from the weekly, almost serialised approach; she gets the best subplot as she attempts to befriend a college student (Lady Bird’s Beanie Feldstein), who is initially captured by Guillermo as a virgin for the vamps to devour, but still gets all the fun of eye-rolling and skewering the stupidity around her in every scene. Her and Lazlo on the prowl together is a joy to watch, thanks to her pitch-perfect comic timing and Matt Berry’s inherently hilarious voice. He’s inspiredly cast as Lazlo, pompous to the last, lascivious at all times and capable of turning into a bat, but only when he shouts the word “Bat”.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else stepping into Jemaine Clement’s shoes as the house’s token sleaze, but Berry does an impressive job of continuing the role while making it all his own. The same is true of Kayvan Novak, whose Nandor has instantly believable chemistry with Berry and Demetrio; we first meet him as he’s complaining about the others leaving half-sucked corpses around the property, the way someone would about washing up being left in the sink. Then, we watch as he tries to declare lordship on Staten Island, while also buying crepe paper (“creepy paper”) to decorate the house for an occult celebration. The latter is to welcome Baron Afanas (a brilliantly, disturbingly hammy Doug Jones) to this world, who lives in a coffin in their attic – and, in between plotting world domination, turns out to have had a relationship with both Lazlo and Nadja.
But Colin may well be the MVP of the whole gang, as he brings an entirely new take on the mythical creatures. His energy drainer, and workplace bore, gives the show a way to play out in the daytime and in normal offices, which not only adds a strangely plausible note to the fantastical mundanity, but also is bleeding funny. A standout episode centred around an unlikely romance for his character shows just how much imagination and inspiration Clement has still left for an idea that could have been a one-joke affair; lore is inventively reworked, characters are subtly developed and laughs are undoubtedly had. We’re also introduced to the unique brand of insecure werewolves that made the film so endearing.
Even relocating the show to America continues to pay off throughout the series, as it brings a new fish-out-of-water vibe to the tale – right down to Nandor addressing the local council with his plans for ruling Staten Island, only to be beaten by bureaucracy and due process. Clement films this and the workplace sequences with the kind of green, downbeat visuals you’d expect from their respective genres, before seamlessly weaving in special effects for maximum hilarity. And, underlying it all, is the quietly evolving sidekick of Guillermo, whose desire to be one of the team increasingly threatens to teeter into frustration and, well, who knows? That ability to surprise constantly is what makes What We Do in the Shadows such an ideal match for the small screen, giving each scenario and character enough room to be fleshed out to their maximum potential, while still being contained within brisk 25-minute runtimes. The result is an entertaining companion to the New Zealand movie. If you liked the 2014 original or BBC One’s Ghosts, sink your teeth into this immediately.
What We Do in the Shadows is available on BBC iPlayer until October 2022. It is also available on Disney+, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.