The annals of history are littered with sitcoms that never got further than a pilot. The format is notoriously hard to nail, for obvious reasons: even if you have charismatic performers, they still need to have chemistry with each other, in whichever groupings an episode requires. More than anything, they need to be funny.
What We Do in the Shadows premiered five years after its movie counterpart, and it came out swinging. Having a pilot written by Jemaine Clement and directed by Taika Waititi—the folks behind the OG film—certainly helped. But its real coup was a brilliant cast, who cemented themselves in their roles and helped ease the transition from our NZ faves to a more international assortment of funny folk. Season three has now started streaming and, judging by the four episodes supplied to critics, it still hits that specific sweet spot of fish-out-of-water comedy blended with (secretly quite compelling) supernatural lore.
If you aren’t familiar with the WWDitS concept, it follows a group of vampires who’ve been knocking around for however many hundreds of years and now find themselves flat-sharing in the modern day. The movie was based in Wellington, the show in Staten Island, USA. Some of the dynamics are ported over, like the relationship between vampire and familiar—here the latter is a guy called Guillermo who’s dying to be turned by his vampiric master (pun intended). A new addition is the presence of an ‘energy vampire’, a stupendously mundane man who feeds off people by boring/ annoying the shit out of them. As he points out, you probably all know an energy vampire.
When your mates recommend you a show, they probably tell you “It doesn’t get good until episode ___ / season ___”, because even with all the stars aligning, that stuff takes time to finesse. Prepping for this article I went back and watched the pilot, and it’s wild how confident it was from the get go. As it’s gone on though, the show gently eased away from the original blueprint and under showrunner Paul Simms, become its own weirdly cozy watch. Season three continues that by deepening and complicating its characters’ interactions in the best sitcom traditions, and by probing their very lengthy personal histories.
For Nadja, played by Natasia Demetriou, that has included a past lover who keeps getting reincarnated, and a haunted doll that is basically an extension of her. I wasn’t familiar with Demetriou prior to the show, but she’s an amazing comedic presence. Nadja is constantly affronted by something, and ready to fly off the handle at any moment.
Her husband is played by UK comedy star Matt Berry, maybe the most familiar face here. Berry is one of those guys who just exudes humour—he’s always funny, even when sitting motionless. Part of his very specific schtick (honed over the course of shows like Snuff Box and Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace), involves lowering his already booming voice and enunciating a word in a particularly posh way. It makes me laugh every time.
I also wonder how much improvisation happens on set, because a line like “don’t touch that book—it’s too much for your young cock” seems like exactly the sort of thing he’d come up with.
The vampires are led by Nandor, played by Kayvan Novak. He’s been alive since the Ottoman Empire, and while we see evidence of his bloodthirsty exploits over the centuries (his full name is Nandor the Relentless), really he’s a big softy—particularly towards his familiar Guillermo.
Over the course of the series it’s come to light that Guillermo, played by Harvey Guillén, is a direct descendant of Van Helsing, and that makes him preternaturally good at killing vampires—something he did a lot of in season two. Obviously that complicates his presence in the group, and much of season three seems to be about addressing that particular conundrum.
There are also hints that Guilermo’s feelings toward Nandor involve more than just wanting to be turned into a vampire. Sexuality is something the show is hilariously (and appropriately) frank about in general: the vampires are voraciously bisexual, something which perhaps shouldn’t feel so progressive in 2021, but still does.
Season three also delves into the backstory of Colin Robinson, the energy vampire. He’s played by Mark Proksch (also hilarious as part of the On Cinema extended universe). Part of the joke is that Colin is incredibly mundane compared to his flamboyant ‘traditional’ vampire flatmates. As the show starts to look into his past and explore where exactly energy vampires come from, it deepens its supernatural lore (which again, is actually pretty cool).
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The show is also grounded by the constant presence of a camera crew. Mockumentary series deal with this idea differently as they go on, but here it’s so ridiculous it becomes part of the fun. The idea that these people would keep filming despite at least one of them getting eaten just adds to the maniacal vibe.
Familiarity and comfort are the name of the game with sitcoms, and that applies here—even though we’re dealing with a house full of murderers. The show doesn’t shy away from the vampire stuff—in fact it can be quite grim, with arterial blood sprays and screaming victims making the odd appearance. Much like the movie, this is balanced by the loveable goofiness of the vampires. It can feel a bit like the anti-Ted Lasso, in that you would never want to encounter these people in real life. But you still look forward to checking in with them each episode.