Based on the 2014 feature film by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, FX’s What We Do in the Shadows fits comfortably into the mockumentary subgenre of TV comedy, typified by the likes of The Office and Parks and Recreation. But this time the deadpan humor, swish-pan camerawork, and “Can you believe this guy?” double-takes are interspersed with surreal bloodletting, cutaways to fake-historical paintings and etchings, and comedic face-offs where vampires grapple with each other in midair or hiss at each other like pissed-off house cats.
Fans of the Shadows movie will be pleased to learn that Clement, who developed the project for TV, and Waititi, who directed the pilot and shares executive producer duties, have preserved its concept, tone, loose-limbed camerawork, and sickly greenish color scheme, all of which were chef’s-kiss perfect. But they’ve started over again with the story and characters, a smart move that allows newcomers to jump right in without consulting the source material. This is an appealingly low-stakes series that’s content to be silly and mildly perverse, and that packs a lot of jokes into its half-hour running time.
Where the film centered on undead flatmates in a suburb of New Zealand’s capital, the TV version takes place in Staten Island. The main characters are Nadja (Natasha Demetriou) and Laszlo (Matt Berry), a vampire couple in a centuries-old relationship; onetime Ottoman Empire soldier Nandor (Kayvan Novak) and his human familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillen); and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), a bespectacled, bald office drone who looks like an ordinary human but is actually an “energy vampire” who “can drain people’s energy simply by talking to them.” The latter character provides some of the show’s biggest laughs by serving as a connector between the vampire world and this one. Energy vampires can exist in daylight and work in regular offices and other workspaces, where they regale colleagues with endless, droning monologues about their vacations or their favorite kinds of condiments until they start to feel very sleepy.
The pilot, which airs Wednesday night, gets off to a fine start by having the bloodsucking roommates prepare for a visit from a vampire elder from the old country who’s coming to Staten Island on a fact-finding mission to see what progress his undead minions have made in taking over the United States. The answer, alas, is not much, because they’re preoccupied with their own personal dramas and with the ordinary tedium of daily life, which can, pardon the expression, suck, even if you’re a 500-year-old vampire royal who can levitate and turn into a bat and climb up the sides of buildings like a spider. The writing and filmmaking rarely resist the temptation to go for an obvious, super-broad joke. (“Recently I have been seeing another man,” Nadja confides in us. “He doesn’t see me, though, because I sneak behind him.”) But that’s what you want from a show like this, and it’s what made the movie such an enjoyable diversion, at least for viewers who didn’t mind a few gallons of blood slathered onto what was essentially a Christopher Guest movie. The vibe is established the minute Nando tells us that he is known as Nando the Relentless because he never relents. If you laughed at that as hard as I did, this show is for you.