TV review: What We Do in the Shadows
- David Pollock
- 16 May 2019
Small-screen version of 2014's cult film comedy is sharp and irreverent
The presence of an original creator isn't essential to the success of either a reboot or a film-to-television adaptation, but in the case of What We Do in the Shadows – the new small-screen version of 2014's cult film comedy about dysfunctional vampire roommates in the city of Wellington, New Zealand – the names of co-creators Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi high up in the credits comes as a huge relief. The original, after all, relied not so much on the concept, but on the pair's perfectly-pitched deadpan delivery, and on their tightrope walk between contemporary relevance and timeless horror tropes.
The new series needs to do something more than just recast and shift the action to the New York borough of Staten Island to refresh the concept for a longer run, and in the pilot episode – written by Clement and directed by Waititi, a high-powered joint CV including Flight of the Conchords and Thor: Ragnarok lending instant credibility – we get an idea of where showrunner Clement wants to take us. The vampire housemates scenario remains intact, but this time featuring Kayvan Novak's prickly and self-absorbed Ottoman warlord Nandor the Relentless, Matt Berry in full Toast of London-with-added-bloodlust mode as the foppish Laszlo, and Natasia Demetriou as Nadja, part ageless vamp and part bored housewife to Laszlo.
Within and beyond the house, new characters and scenarios are quickly established to shift us away from what we've seen before. In a most inspired piece of character creation, Mark Proksch is Colin Robinson, the house's fourth fiend and a 'psychic vampire' who feasts upon the spiritual energies of other beings; what this means is a water cooler bore who can sap the life even from other vampires with conversation alone. 'The power grows stronger in him by the night!' gasps Lazslo, after Colin's mere presence has Nadja dozing off on the sofa.
Harvey Guillen's Guillermo is Nandor's nerd familiar ('it's like being a best friend… who's also a slave'), and his obsequious desire to become a vampire in the face of his master's disdain looks like being a regular source of cringeworthy tragicomedy. Guillermo's set of socially awkward LARPing friends are much prized by the vampires for their virginal qualities, particularly Beanie Feldstein's Jenna, who is turned vampiric in the second episode during what she imagines is a formative sexual encounter with the (much) older Nadja.
Narrative threads form around mortals like Jenna and Guillermo, while the main thrust of the ongoing story begins with the arrival of Baron Afanas, a husk of a creature who Nadja and Laszlo have both enjoyed vigorous affairs with, and his demand that the group conquer 'the New World'. Although 'what the fuck would anyone want with Canada?', demands Laszlo, as they try to deduce what that means geographically.
There's also an edge of darkness which wasn't as pronounced in the film; Jenna hints at unwelcome sexual demands from her boyfriend, which Nadja's education could have something to say about, while the trio's hapless attempts to intimidate local councillors as the first step to world domination are borderline sinister. The sharp and irreverent tone of the film is intact, but in the first two parts there are hints that the breadth of story needed to sustain ten half-hour episodes is all there as well.
What We Do in the Shadows begins on BBC2 on Sun 19 May.