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What Makes a Taika Waititi TV Series a Taika Waititi TV Series?

What kinda pirate has a friend? This kinda pirate. Photo: Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

The boundary between movies and TV has become increasingly porous over the past decade or so, and for an auteur with an adaptable but identifiable style, the small screen can be a doorway to new stories and new possibilities. With his expanding TV empire, director, writer, actor, and executive producer Taika Waititi has strolled right through it.

Waititi stepped into mainstream success after 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok was critically and commercially well-received, and since then, his choices as a TV executive producer have furthered the motivations and motifs he first developed as an indie film writer and director, narratives that bounce between irreverence and melancholy, and that feature inclusive casts in which unique singularities are celebrated. He has prioritized Indigenous perspectives as a way to honor his own Māori heritage, played with genre by mashing together comedy and horror, and — most recurrently — positioned characters’ chosen families as the most important relationships in their lives. The bonds between pirates sailing the high seas (Our Flag Means Death), Indigenous teenagers living in rural Oklahoma (Reservation Dogs), undead Staten Island roommates getting on each other’s nerves (What We Do in the Shadows), and unfazed New Zealand cops investigating the paranormal (Wellington Paranormal) patch holes in these characters’ lives with camaraderie and friendship. If there’s one way to recognize a Waititi series, it’s by the suggestion that your family of origin is something you can’t be afraid to leave behind, and your family of choice comprises those you invite to help shape you moving forward.

In Our Flag Means Death, which concludes its first season on HBO Max today, this framing applies to the pirate crew of the ship Revenge, sailing the high seas in 1717. In creator David Jenkins’s series, landowner and aristocrat Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby, who also appears in the What We Do in the Shadows film and Wellington Paranormal) has spent a lifetime being rejected by people who should love him. His controlling father accuses him of being too dandyish, and his wife from an arranged marriage and their two children find him immature and out of touch. So Stede sells a couple acres of land to fund the construction of the ship Revenge; stocks it with a full library, tons of art, an array of satin outfits, and a larder of gourmet food; and devotes himself to a life of piracy — or at least his romanticized version of it.

At first, members of the mixed lot of weirdos and misfits who populate the Revenge are unimpressed by Stede’s etiquette, decorum, and refusal to let them pillage and burn at will. They wonder if he’s trying “a new kind of slow piracy,” and they roll their eyes a bit when his instructions for fighting off a rival ship are “Places, everyone. Look scary!” But the “Gentleman Pirate” wins them over with story time, arts and crafts, and emotional honesty (“If someone returns from the raid mentally devastated, we talk it through as a crew”), and the pirates in Our Flag Means Death steadily become more supportive, compassionate, and affectionate toward each other. The crew members excitedly play together on a beach during their first vacation, mandated by Stede, in second episode “A Damned Man.” They collaborate to trick the Spanish Navy by using a mirror and lantern to masquerade as a lighthouse in “Discomfort in a Married State.” Members of the Revenge crew wear flowers in their beards, bask in the moonlight, and develop such a strong bond that they confuse “traditional” pirate Calico Jack (Will Arnett), who exasperatedly asks “What kinda pirate has a friend?”

Several friendships in Our Flag Means Death grow into romance, which nearly everyone in the series accepts without question or judgment. In the fifth episode, “The Best Revenge Is Dressing Well,” scribe Lucius (Nathan Foad) and Black Pete (Matthew Maher) — characters whose animated and irritable personalities, respectively, seem at odds — are revealed to be happily sleeping together. Similar opposites-attract pairings bloom between Stede and infamous pirate Blackbeard (Waititi), who asks that Stede call him “Ed,” and Revenge crew members Oluwande (Samson Kayo) and Jim (Vico Ortiz), who share the secret that Jim is in disguise to evade a bounty and was born with the name Bonifacia Jimenez. Each relationship reflects the series’ suggestion that it’s the people who choose to befriend, embrace, and love us who are more meaningful than the biological family that might not have understood us.

In the seventh episode, “This is Happening,” Stede and Ed, who spend all their time together, trade clothes, and run the Revenge as co-captains, take up the episode’s A story as they wander the island St. Augustine looking for oranges. The pair might not explicitly realize that they’ve fallen for each other while trading lessons in how to threaten captives (Ed’s knowledge) and use an escargot fork (Stede’s), but everyone else has — including Lucius, who gasps, “Oh my God, this is happening,” when Stede attentively picks snake meat out of Ed’s beard. In the B story, Olu and Jim return to the church where Jim was trained by their grandmother to avenge the deaths of their murdered family. “If you wanted, I could be family,” Olu says to Jim before they lean toward each other for a kiss, and it’s all very Gendry and Arya, if you’re still willing to extend any fondness to Game of Thrones.

Eighth episode “We Gull Way Back” makes this found-family dynamic clearer with the arrival of Arnett’s Calico Jack, Ed’s ex, who attempts to drive a wedge between Stede, whom he dismisses as “this fop,” and Ed, whom he accuses of losing his edge. But he unintentionally pushes them together by saying to Stede, “You buggerin’ each other or what? … Nothing to be ashamed of,” and that implicit approval, combined with Lucius and Olu’s encouragement that Stede finally make a move, makes the pair realize how much they mean to each other. Ed leaves Calico Jack to return to Stede, and the two gaze into each others’ eyes as Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” plays in the episode’s final moments. Both Stede and Jim left their homes to become themselves, and Ed and Olu care for them, respectively, as they are.

Individuals turning to each other to fill the void of their challenging or unfulfilling lives characterizes each post-Thor: Ragnarok series that carries an executive-producer credit for Waititi, going back to his first series in this trend: Wellington Paranormal. Co-created by Waititi’s What We Do In the Shadows collaborator Jemaine Clement and Paul Yates, Wellington Paranormal follows New Zealand police officers Minogue (Mike Minogue) and O’Leary (Karen O’Leary), who were introduced in 2014’s Shadows film as deeply unimaginative cops who failed to recognize werewolves and vampires living in their midst. Their incuriosity draws the attention of their boss, Sgt. Ruawai Maaka (Maaka Pohatu), who has created his own (one-person) Paranormal Unit to investigate all the bizarre occurrences on their island. He enlists O’Leary and Minogue to join him, and over the course of the series’ four seasons, the trio faces down demons, zombies, aliens, werewolves, vampires (including Cori Gonzalez-Macuer’s Nick, from the Shadows film), and all manner of other supernatural entities.

Much of the series’ humor comes from how invariably dense Minogue and O’Leary are, how they butt up against Maaka’s superior knowledge, and how they treat every encounter with paranormal activity like it’s their first. There’s a rhythmic sameness to Wellington Paranormal that can get a bit old, but the series is best when it lets Minogue drop some of his doofishness, O’Leary some of her rigidity, and Maaka some of his brusqueness, so that the three characters can connect as easily shocked people experiencing the world’s oddities together. Season-two episode “The Not Ness Monster” sees the trio watching on in fascination and disgust as two sea creatures from Māori mythology mate for nearly three hours; the only thing they can do is wait it out and commune over the strangeness of the sight. Another highlight is Wellington Paranormal’s 2019 Christmas special, which reveals the unexpected ways these characters listen to and care for each other. In the episode’s final moments, Minogue gifts Maaka a teddy-bear police officer he mentioned having lost as a child. Minogue may continuously mispronounce “extraterrestrials” as “extra-terresticles,” but the proud little smile that spreads over his face when he sees Maaka’s touched reaction is a refreshing deviation from the character’s usual buffoonery.

The found-family construct becomes even more literal in the TV version of What We Do in the Shadows. For decades, blood-sucking vampires Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), Leslie “Laszlo” Cravensworth (Matt Berry), and Nadja of Antipaxos (Natasia Demetriou), as well as energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), have lived together in a Staten Island mansion along with Nandor’s familiar Guillermo de la Cruz (Harvey Guillén). The five of them are bonded in various ways, including by Guillermo’s devotion to Nandor, Laszlo and Nadja’s marriage after she turned him into a vampire, their cover-up of various murders that occur in and around their home, and their unlikely friendship with human neighbor Sean (Anthony Atamanuik).

Over three seasons, members of the group often fight among themselves, but they always make up. Their closeness is a way to deal with the burden of immortality, since their biological families are either long dead (Nandor’s in Iran, Laszlo’s in England, and Nadja’s in Greece), mysterious and unidentified (Colin’s), or simply insufficient (Guillermo’s). That’s why the series’ third season finale, in which the group scatters around the globe and “accepts its humanity,” as Anne Victoria Clark wrote for Vulture, is such a shock. They’ve found solace and protection in each other, and what happens now that Laszlo is taking care of a reborn-as-an-infant Colin, Nadja and Guillermo are on their way to England, and Nandor is taking the train — and potentially an airplane — by himself? The season’s final shot is Laszlo hanging their family portrait, but who will make it back to Staten Island to see it?

The choice to leave one’s birth home to find another also drives Reservation Dogs, co-created by Waititi and Seminole and Muscogee Creek writer-director Sterlin Harjo. The dramedy series is set in the fictional town of Okern, Oklahoma, from which four teenagers are planning their escape. Elora (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) have spent a year mourning their friend and cousin Daniel (Dalton Cramer), who died by suicide. It was Daniel’s dream to move to California, leaving the reservation behind, and Elora, Bear, Cheese, and Willie Jack are pulling off heists, selling meat pies, and doing everything they can to save enough money to do the same thing.

For seven episodes, the friends plan. They’ll live in California together, they’ll find jobs, they’ll experience things outside of the reservation that they never could while there, and they’ll honor Daniel through their actions. But there’s a schism in finale episode “Satvrday,” when Willie Jack and Cheese realize that the fulfillment they’ve been looking for can be found on the reservation and Elora leaves for California without Bear. Growing up can mean moving on, but for friends who have done everything together since childhood, what does the absence of one do to the collective? Reservation Dogs’s second season will have to grapple with Elora’s decision to leave both her birth family and her found family, and whether what Willie Jack’s father told her in “Hunting” was true: “You know, people leave here all the time. They come right back. ʼCause this is where their people are.”

There is other overlap between Waititi’s series, like supporting roles and cameos for actors including Nick Kroll, Gary Farmer, and Kristen Schaal (who bounce between What We Do in the Shadows, Our Flag Means Death, and Reservation Dogs) and audacious costumes (including many puffy shirts, shiny satin outfits, and capes). But most pervasive is the idea that home isn’t a fixed location and family isn’t a static concept. The sense of acceptance that Our Flag Means Death provides to its characters — especially Ed, the one serendipitously played by Waititi himself — is the latest extension of the auteur’s medium-spanning ideology.

What Makes a Taika Waititi Series a Taika Waititi Series?