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Death Is Just the Beginning: The Undead Anxiety Attack of ‘What We Do in the Shadows’

FX’s breakout comedy is darkly funny and often surprising, but most of all, it’s deeply unnerving

FX/Ringer illustration

“When you’re standing at the crossroads / That you cannot comprehend / Just remember that death is not the end.”
—Bob Dylan, “Death Is Not the End”

What do you find scary? I mean, what really chills you to the bone? I’ll tell you what scares me. It isn’t the notion that we die and become a soulless sack of decaying flesh. It isn’t even the idea of eternal damnation. What really scares me is this: What if we die, and in the afterlife everything’s the same?

This is, in many ways, the darkly comic nightmare posited by What We Do in the Shadows, FX’s documentary-style comedy that follows the travails of four vampires living together as roommates in a spooky house on Staten Island. As the show wraps up its extremely funny first season on Wednesday night, we have witnessed the superhuman powers of Nadja, Laszlo, Nandor the Relentless, and Colin Robinson. They turn into bats, and flutter off at breakneck speed. They scale walls and hypnotize humans and drain them of their blood in momentary bursts of orgiastic violence. You know, vampire stuff.

They are also socially awkward, romantically and professionally frustrated, baffled by protocol and bureaucracy, and seemingly unable to agree on who is responsible for which household chores. In short, it is a program about the limits of the human experience, even when the human experience extends to an elite faction of the undead. Even in the realm of the supernatural, the forces of banality and inertia trump all. How terrifying is that?

What We Do in the Shadows is adapted from the beloved 2014 feature-length film of the same name, which was written and directed by Flight of the Conchords cocreator Jemaine Clement and fellow New Zealand–based filmmaker and comedian Taika Waititi. The movie version is populated by a different set of vampires, and is set in Wellington rather than Staten Island, but otherwise Clement and Waititi’s televised adaptation is largely the same. Why are vampires being followed by a film crew? Well, why not? Doesn’t everybody get their own documentary these days? The results are a bit like Parks and Recreation by way of Sartre’s No Exit.

The vampires in the Shadows series are hundreds of years old and have been roommates for centuries. They can barely stand one another, but the highly particular mandates and contingencies of undead life bind them inextricably together. Ostensibly, their mission is to colonize the New World and enslave humanity (their collective history seems to date to antique civilizations of Eastern Europe), but a general confusion about life in the outer boroughs has confined their conquest to (maybe) one block surrounding their home. For every individual who ever moved to New York City with big things in mind, the meta joke will ring achingly true.

Instead, they procrastinate. Nandor, the ostensible leader, is fussy and self-conscious, locked in a long psychic struggle with his familiar (vampire lingo for lackey) Guillermo, who longs to be turned into a vampire. Despite his imposing size and terrifying powers, Nandor struggles to assert himself. When one of their number is captured by animal control while in bat form, his attempts at a rescue are short-circuited by a disinterested staff. Gestures toward expanding his dominion are thoroughly confused by zoning ordinances. He wants badly to become an American citizen—he worships the 1992 Olympic Dream Team—but struggles to explain to an impatient immigration official how it is that he is 757 years old.

Nadja and Laszlo are the program’s romantic locus—a centuries-long couple with all of the attendant capacity to annoy and badger one another unique to long-term partnering. They bicker endlessly and pointlessly between long-winded reveries about their pan-sexual adventures from ages past. When Nadja reacts disinterestedly to Laszlo’s revelation of his long, secret career as a porn star—it dates to the invention of the camera—he haughtily refuses to participate in the socially crucial vampire sex party the household is throwing. (Vampires are creatively libidinous in ways that would jog the imagination of the most open-minded human.)

Shadows’ most chilling invention is its most ostensibly normal. The daywalking, “energy vampire” Colin Robinson feeds not on human blood but on human life force. While the others dress in Ottoman garb and sleep in coffins during the day, Colin wears straight clothes and stalks the killing floors of a normal office, sating his nefarious appetites by telling his colleagues stories as dull as they are interminable. Even his fellow vampires go to great lengths to avoid him. You watch and you realize: I have met an energy vampire, and I have been a meal.

One wonderful feature of What We Do in the Shadows is that the characters experience existence through the lens of countless centuries of frequently ultraviolent history, implicitly creating a kind of corrective to the “everything is worse than it’s ever been!!” narrative of our contemporary moment. Really? Was it worse than the time that Laszlo contracted leprosy, but only on one body part? Or the time his cursed hat caused the potato famine and millions died? These kinds of details have a way of resetting our anxiety around net neutrality.

Ultimately our guide through the haunted and bothered psychic corridors of vampire psychology is Harvey Guillén’s wonderful Guillermo. Directly in the tradition of oddly compliant adjutants like Waylon Smithers or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Brandt from The Big Lebowski, he is a constant witness to madness and misjudgment. Amid the vampires’ scheming, he attempts—haltingly—to suggest that actually America has no king to assassinate or that the beaver trade in Canada dried up a hundred years ago. No one pays him any mind.

But in spite of everything he’s seen, Guillermo still longs to become one of them. At least then he will be able to fly. At least then he will have some stature. The tedium of being a vampire has got to be better than the tedium of being a human. Doesn’t it?

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.