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In Praise of the Absurd, Chaotic ‘What We Do in the Shadows’

The FX series about vampires living mundane lives on Staten Island, which wraps its second season on Wednesday, is the perfect addition to any television diet

FX/Ringer illustration

I firmly believe the key to a good TV-viewing diet is making sure you have shows to watch for any occasion. I’ll be the first to stan Nicolas Winding Refn’s criminally underseen, glacially paced, and hyperviolent Too Old to Die Young, but it’s the kind of series you have to be in the right mood to endure. Sometimes, it’s just nice to have a small-screen balm whose underlying agenda is seeing how much it can commit to its dumb bits.

To that end, FX’s What We Do in the Shadows is a genius work of stupid art. Based on the 2014 mockumentary film of the same name from Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, the series follows the mundane travails of a group of vampires living under one roof in Staten Island. As the vamps Nandor, Nadja, and Laszlo—who are all centuries old—struggle to navigate modern life, the closest thing the show has to an overarching story line is Nandor’s human familiar Guillermo (basically a personal assistant) wanting to become a vampire while also reckoning with the fact that he is a descendant of Van Helsing. (He’s learned that staking vampires comes as naturally to him as holding grudges comes to Michael Jordan.) What We Do in the Shadows concludes its second season on Wednesday night, putting Nandor, Nadja, and Laszlo in situations where their inflated egos and ignorance of the modern world make a compelling case that immortality isn’t as awesome as it sounds. It might actually be something closer to hell.

Once an imposing ruler of the Ottoman Empire with 37 wives, this season, the perpetually insecure Nandor falls victim to one of those spam emails that requests he forward the message to 10 people by sunrise if he wants to avoid being cursed by Bloody Mary. When one of the addresses he tries to forward the email to comes back as a mailer-daemon, Nandor thinks he has also summoned a demon to his house and freaks out. I haven’t laughed harder at a single thing all year. Other times, Nandor’s cluelessness is a danger to others: When the vamps are invited to a Super Bowl party by a neighbor, they not only mistake it as a festival to celebrate the “Superb Owl,” but brain-wipe their harmless host because he jokes that he only sees them at night so they gotta be vampires.

The idea that centuries-old vampires would lead existences just as meandering as those of regular humans was the crux of Clement and Waititi’s film, which balanced werewolf showdowns and feasting on the blood of virgins with roommate meetings about cleaning the dishes in a timely fashion. (The movie rules.) The biggest concern with taking What We Do in the Shadows and giving it the sitcom treatment was that the series would quickly run out of ideas—maybe there’s only so much material that can be mined from a very silly and somewhat-thin premise.

But if the hilarious second season is anything to go by, What We Do in the Shadows could theoretically thrive as long as its vamps. (FX renewed the series for a third season in May.) The TV adaptation has done more than just rehash the same ideas from the film in a new setting: The inclusion of a character like Guillermo, as the straight man and a potentially antagonistic force if he were to ever unleash his Van Helsing genes on the unsuspecting doofuses constantly disrespecting him, is an ideal counterweight to the campy vampire shenanigans. The movie lacked a female vampire presence, and in Nadja—played by the terrific English-Cypriot actress Natasia Demetriou, whom my late yia yia would probably want me to marry—they have added someone who has had to suffer through life with a partner (Laszlo) who once went 200 years without performing cunnilingus. (“You said I tasted like goat’s cheese!” she screams at Laszlo in another moment that sent me flying off my couch.) And the fifth member of the main ensemble, Colin Robinson, might be the show’s master stroke.

With the outside appearance of an office drone confined to life in a cubicle, Colin is an “energy vampire” who feeds off people and vampires alike by holding them hostage with horribly dull anecdotes until you’re ready to pass out. In a world where vampires transform into bats, witches collect male sperm for its anti-aging properties, and internet trolls might sometimes be literal trolls, the scariest thing about a character like Colin Robinson is that an energy vampire doesn’t feel like a product of fiction. We’ve all met one; I’m pretty sure an energy vampire is part of my extended family.

With an abundance of TV-viewing options—even when the industry is on hold during a global pandemic, there’s a lot to catch up on—several series can be sold with convincing pitches for their visual artistry, or how they examine the complexities of relationships and the human experience. The simplest endorsement for What We Do in the Shadows is that it’s a bunch of brilliant writers—i.e. Stefani Robinson, who was nominated for an Emmy for her work on FX’s Atlanta—and performers reveling in something that doesn’t deign to be anything but an assemblance of puns, sight gags, and absolutely bizarre detours, like Laszlo getting out of settling an old debt by moving to Pennsylvania to become an “average American Yankee Doodle Dandy” bartender named Jackie Daytona, who gets really obsessed with the local high school volleyball team making it to state.

This could be the moment when Peak TV finally peaked.

I love What We Do in the Shadows so much—as a testament to how much a series can excel under the silliest of conceits, and an assurance that I can spend 22-odd minutes each week shutting off my brain while Vampire Mark Hamill, ordering a “human alcohol beer” at a bar, gasps in amazement when “Jackie Daytona” removes a toothpick from his mouth to reveal that he has, in fact, been Laszlo the whole time. While auteur-driven comedies (Atlanta, Ramy, Master of None, Better Things, etc.) have been one of the emerging trends of the past decade in television, the relative success of new shows like What We Do in the Shadows and Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave offer hope that there’s also a future in which bizarro comedies can thrive.

Tim Robinson’s sketch series—which has thus far featured zero vampires, but who knows what’s in store for Season 2—might be a strange point of comparison for What We Do in the Shadows. But when stripped to their base components, there’s a reason both comedies are so funny and appealing. At their core, I Think You Should Leave and What We Do in the Shadows present people navigating unwinnable situations—some, in Robinson’s series, by refusing to acknowledge which way a door pulls or whether they used enough toilet paper when wiping. As for What We Do in the Shadows, our vampires are reduced to living in the shadows of a world that’s moving further away from them, trapped in an endless cycle of banality while refusing to change their ways. Maybe the show has something to say about humanity, after all.