Even at just 85 minutes, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s 2014 mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was already stretching its one-joke premise by the time it wrapped up, so taking the concept and expanding it into an ongoing TV series is an even shakier prospect. Unfortunately, the first four episodes of FX’s What We Do in the Shadows series (premiering March 27 at 10 p.m.) don’t make a very strong case for long-term viability.
The show isn’t a direct extension of the movie, which starred Waititi, Clement and Jonathan Brugh as vampires living in the suburbs of Wellington, New Zealand, but rather a reboot of the concept, now set in Staten Island, New York, starring Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry and Natasia Demetriou as a different trio of vampire roommates.
The main source of humor is the same, though, as these deadly, immortal beings are reduced to mundane losers, living in a dilapidated house and barely able to intimidate anyone, let alone rule over humanity. Nandor the Relentless (Novak) is a former Ottoman warlord now reduced to settling household squabbles, and married couple Laszlo (Berry) and Nadja (Demetriou) spend most of their time lobbing passive-aggressive insults at each other. As in the movie, the vampires are joined by a human familiar who does their bidding, but not-so-secretly longs to be made into a vampire. Here, that’s the nerdy Guillermo (Harvey Guillen), whose main function is to be the target of various put-downs, all of which he takes in stride.
The vampires face adversaries including a pack of local werewolves, a douchey rival vampire who runs a Manhattan nightclub, and the members of the local borough council, who aren’t particularly interested in the vampires’ efforts to take over Staten Island. Contrasting the ridiculous, grandiose supernatural behavior of the vampires with everyday drudgery is the main source of humor, and it’s mildly amusing to see the bored reactions of the local politicians to Nandor’s threats of doom and destruction. But the jokes are pretty much all the same, and they’ve really run their course in just the four episodes available for review. The episodes mix standalone stories with some ongoing plotting, including the presence of the Nosferatu-like Baron, who’s disappointed that the vampires haven’t conquered “the new world” in the 200 years they’ve been there.
The main actors, all veteran comedic performers, do bring some charm and flair to their characters, adding humor to even the most straightforward interactions and basic bits of exposition, and guest stars including comedy favorites Nick Kroll and Vanessa Bayer, add a few laughs. The show’s most significant new addition is also its most misguided, though, an “energy vampire” named Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), who looks like a nondescript middle-aged office drone and feeds on people’s life forces by essentially boring them into submission. He’s able to move around during the day, he has none of the ancient affectations of the other characters, and he’s entirely out of place among the horror-movie types. He’s also completely one-dimensional, bringing his only comic payoff in his first appearance, as he engages in inane small talk with his co-workers at the generic cubicle farm where he hunts his prey.
Colin’s subplots are almost entirely detached from the rest of the show, and other plot elements give the series a loose, disjointed feel, halfway between sketch comedy and sitcom. The most engaging subplot involves Nadja taking a liking to a nerdy LARPer named Jenna (Beanie Feldstein), whom Guillermo initially lures in as a victim (the joke being, of course, that all LARPers are virgins), and eventually turning her into a vampire. The geeky college student who becomes a vampire is a slightly more grounded character to build an ongoing series around, but Jen only has a handful of scenes in the first four episodes, and it’s not clear if she’ll return (supporting characters seem to be forgotten about when they’re not onscreen).
Like a lot of mockumentary series, What We Do in the Shadows also has a hard time explaining and/or justifying its existence as a supposed documentary, and the one reference to the human camera crew only creates far more narrative problems than it addresses. Waititi and Clement serve as producers and occasional writers and directors, and the show’s best moments are little bits of their signature dry humor, whether that’s Nandor insisting on calling crepe paper “creepy paper” or Kroll’s Simon the Devious having a member of his posse with the MC name Count Rapula. This show doesn’t demonstrate anything approaching the inventiveness of previous Waititi/Clement collaboration Flight of the Conchords, though, nor the potential for that show’s surprising emotional depth (at least not at this point).
Still, fans of the creators’ sense of humor and of the original movie should get at least some enjoyment out of the show, which extends the movie’s vibe for as long as possible. But what was a fun idea for a short film (as it originated in 2005) and an amusing (if limited) premise for a feature has very little cleverness left by the time it gets to this underwhelming series.