How What We Do in the Shadows Flipped Itself Into a Home-Renovation Show

Photo: Russ Martin/FX

What We Do in the Shadows is a true anomaly, a thing that, by all logic of television, shouldn’t work. Is it a family sitcom? Yes. Is it a horny single-cam workplace comedy? Very much so. Is it a richly detailed fantasy you can geek out over? Totally. But ultimately, Shadows is one big joke (What if vampires but on Staten Island?) that is constantly spitting out thousands of little baby jokes like a Mogwai caught in the rain. The world building is thoughtfully complex enough, however, that the show can briefly thrust the main characters into a completely different genre for the sake of a gag, and it works. This means on any given Tuesday night you can tune into FX and get a feel-good sports movie, a casino caper, a workout cult that loves the Barenaked Ladies, or — in the case of this season’s eighth episode, “Go Flip Yourself” — a home-renovation reality show.

“Maybe the audience just wants to watch the vampires go to Staples every week, which I think would be very fun, too, but we like expanding the world,” Marika Sawyer, the episode’s writer, told Vulture. “It probably comes from comedy-writer ennui where we just want new stuff.” Executive producer Stefani Robinson had the idea to put the vampires on a reality-TV show, and the writers’ room pitched the wraiths getting a Vanderpump Rules–style spinoff and the vamps appearing on Guillermo’s mom’s favorite Mexican game show. “We ended up coming to the home-renovation idea because it has such a specific language and look that’s so separate from our current show,” said Sawyer.

Turning a sitcom into an episode of reality television is a plot point that must be earned, so season four kicks off with the vampires’ house in disrepair thanks to Guillermo’s (Harvey Guillén) absence. The writers created a show within a show called Go Flip Yourself — hosted by twin brothers Bran and Toby Daltry (Randy and Jason Sklar) — that Laszlo (Matt Berry) uses to soothe baby Colin (Mark Proksch) and subsequently becomes obsessed with. Planting the first seeds of neglect was a task for production designer Shayne Fox, who had six weeks before season-four production began to “trash” the house set, including figuring out what would play on-camera on a darkly lit set already chock-full of props. “We wanted to keep everything within the eyeline of the camera because the camera is eye height for the mockumentary-doc crew if they’re standing up,” Fox told me. She came up with what she describes as “a palette of degradation markers” — arbitrary green slime, exposed piping, crumbling ceilings, and piles of plaster — and went through set with green tape to flag where the crew should add each.

For the show within a show, Sawyer, who has a passion for the home-renovation genre, decided on something reminiscent of Property Brothers for one simple reason: “I had this idea for a joke where one of them is killed immediately.” The show toyed with the idea of casting just one actor and using visual effects to give them a fake twin who could die, but that was mostly a backup plan in case Randy and Jason were booked. “They’re the funniest twins we know,” explained Yana Gorskaya, who directed the episode. “It felt like a really natural fit. Then they were really gracious and auditioned.”

Photo: Russ Martin/FX

That process involved a self-tape of the spiel they give in front of the vampires’ house at the top of the episode. Randy’s oldest daughter, Daisy — then a rising senior at a performing-arts high school with ambitions of directing — offered to shoot and direct the tape. “We were going to just do it in front of a wall,” Jason said. “She’s like, ‘No, no, no, let’s go outside. Let’s treat this like you’re in the scene regardless of where we are.’” The brothers picked which characters they’d play for the audition (Randy gravitated toward Bran and Jason to Toby) and decided to bring a “Christian rock energy” to the roles. “We started doing this thing where the subtext was, Hey, I’m Bran. I like to have a little fun,” Randy explained. “And meanwhile, my idea of fun is not fun at all: It’s pulling the rug out from under Toby.”

The Sklars didn’t realize at the time that Jason’s role would be cut short by Nadja’s (Natasia Demetriou) bloodlust the moment they entered the house. “And that’s okay. I mean, it happens. Jay got to do Curb Your Enthusiasm all those years ago,” Randy said. “And so this is karmic” — Jason interjects before Randy finishes the sentence: “Payback.”

Not that Jason was stuck with nothing to do. It was his first time being killed on-camera and involved a stunt that required he hit his mark at exactly the right moment upon entering the house. “​​We have to get the timing right where she lands behind me in time to snap my neck, throw me down, take a bite, spray it out everywhere” before Toby could react, Jason remembered. “And I’m just getting drenched. I’m sitting in pools and pools of this fake blood, and it’s so great.” Randy’s challenge was to then perform a partially improvised “walk and talk” with Laszlo that didn’t distract from the bloodbath happening behind them. “We’re in deep background on this shot, and she’s acting through the bell and full on getting into it,” Jason recounted.

After his character’s untimely demise, Jason retreated to video village to watch Randy find a rhythm with the rest of the ensemble on the improv-heavy series. One of Randy’s recurring bits was constantly mispronouncing Nandor as “Nander”; he also improvised a long list of people who work on Go Flip Yourself during the hypnosis scene. Gorskaya supported the play: “As soon as they would cut, she would laugh,” Jason explained. “It was super-encouraging without being overtly encouraging. Not a lot of directors do that.”

Gorskaya has directed much of Shadows’s most ambitious fare, including the aforementioned genre-swap episodes and this season’s venture to the “Night Market.” She volunteered to direct “Go Flip Yourself” in part because she loves the reality format: “When we were in heavy lockdown in Toronto, I spent most of my free time watching Property Brothers. I feel like I was made to do this episode,” she said. She tasked her director of photography, DJ Stipsen, with watching as many episodes of Property Brothers and Love It or List It as he could — “which he hated me for,” she recalls, “but it felt really necessary. Our show was already documentary style, so the parallels are there in terms of the handheld look. But it was helpful to have conversations about how to make it look and feel different from a regular Shadows episode.”

Photo: Russ Martin/FX

The crew brought in a jib-arm crane for the overhead shots panning through the house interior along with very bright lights to mimic the way a reality home-improvement show would illuminate a raccoon-infested Staten Island home. They also turned off the machines that normally pump smoke through the set to create a dusky, dreamlike atmosphere. The few actual home renovations the episode required made the job somewhat easier for Fox, who normally has to search high and low (and sometimes on the actual curb) for offbeat vintage props like the working TV projector Laszlo uses to watch Go Flip Yourself in the season premiere. Even for things made in house, ongoing supply-chain issues remained a constant challenge — “Every step of the way, everything is just harder than it ever was now,” Fox said — but for the post-renovation shots, she simply went to stores like HomeSense (the Canadian version of HomeGood) to stock up on kitsch, including a framed collection of paper-bird cutouts and the bowl of decorative balls found in Nandor’s remodeled man cave. (Fox can’t recall if the balls were actually in the script, “but we had to have some, right? And the little fake succulent plants and the throw over the arm chair, lovingly laid out.”) It was Fox’s favorite room to create, making the saddle barstools to honor Nandor’s deceased horse, John, and giving him a mini basketball court. “We packed a whole bunch of Nandorness in that room,” she said.

The other construction-based renovation, the room-size walk-in closet for Laszlo’s wardrobe, was loosely based on Carrie Bradshaw’s dream closet in the Sex and the City movie. It also served as the set for the big final reveal: that Bran has been Simon the Devious (Nick Kroll) this whole time. “The idea came out of, Wouldn’t it be funny if this thing Laszlo loves and adores turned out to be the person he loathes the most?” Sawyer remembered. “In my head, there is this backstory: Simon knows Laszlo well enough that he knows how to tickle some unknown, very specific area of pleasure in his brain,” Gorskaya added, “and so he designed this show specifically to appeal to Laszlo.” The climactic scene also sees the return of Simon’s extremely large crew, most of whom are the same actors who appear alongside him in season one’s “Manhattan Nightclub” and season two’s “The Return,” including a Russian man who plays Simon’s accountant and was cast as a zombie because he speaks very little English in real life. (Luckily, Gorskaya speaks Russian.) “I actually think the person who had the most fun was Matt Berry,” she said, noting he improvised by throwing real shoes at Kroll on set. “I almost ran in and stopped it, but Nick seemed to be enjoying it.”

Photo: Hulu

In addition to directing, Gorskaya has been an editor on the show for all four seasons, and after filming wrapped, she went to work with another lead editor, Dane McMaster, on what is undoubtedly the most important phase of making a reality program: postproduction. “In post is really where we went to town,” she said, “finding all the dumbest transitions between things and adding all the graphic elements. He and I spent hours in music libraries finding things that had just the right level of sounding like a legit reality-show song but also felt a slight touch of stupid.” (McMaster was willing to listen to the songs all the way through, which is how he stumbled upon one with the lyrics “This is our home, but something has changed,” a perfect accompaniment to the big closet reveal.) Some of the most involved graphic elements included 3-D renders of how the remodeled house would look, a task the Shadows team outsourced to the actual Property Brothers graphics department. “We sent them JibJab references for the vampire cutouts to add to their Property Brothers style,” Gorskaya said. For the show’s voice-over, she recruited Tina Morasco, whose voice viewers may know from Love It or List It. “We wanted to sell it as much as a real reality-TV episode as we possibly could and to use people who work in those fields to help us.”

When the episode ends, our vampire heroes are left with a slightly kitschier, still-ruined mansion, but no one from production would tell me whether viewers will see the vampires use the walk-in closet or Nandor’s Marwa’s man cave again. One thing that’s certain: Simon’s newest crew member, Adele Dazeem, is officially, in the world of Shadows, a real person. “Yeah, she’s a separate person whose name is actually Adele Dazeem. She’s probably been at an award show where someone’s called her Idina Menzel by accident,” Sawyer explained. “There’s a lot of backstory there. Perhaps we’ll get into it one day.”

How Shadows Flipped Itself Into a Home-Renovation Show