Before he was handed the reins to “Thor: Ragnarok,” Taika Waititi was most known for co-writing, directing and starring in “What We Do in the Shadows,” alongside Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords.”) The film’s cast, Waititi, Clement and Jonathan Brugh play Viago, Vladislav and Deacon — three European vampires living in New Zealand who allow a documentary crew to follow them in the time leading up to a massive social event. The film was a cult classic for its clever use of supernatural lore and dry sense of humor.
Now, “What We Do in the Shadows” comes to TV courtesy of FX, with Clement as the creator and Waititi directing two episodes. Given the history of American attempts at British, Australian or New Zealand humor and the fact that the film runs for a sleek 87 minutes, there’s reason to be wary of the new show. But worry not. “What We Do in the Shadows” is a worthy follow up, equally as funny as its predecessor while still branching out in its own fashion. More importantly, it nails the black comedy and sudden violence inherent to this style, and does it with gusto.
The new version moves the action to Staten Island (“the New Zealand of America,” as Waititi put it). Standing in for our original trio are Nador (Kayvan Novak), a former soldier of the Ottoman Empire and quirky leader of the group; Laszlo (Matt Berry), a pansexual English nobleman with an ego; and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), a Romani vampire responsible for turning Lazlo. Rounding out this new cast are Guillermo (Harvey Guillen), Nandor’s much abused familiar longing to become a vampire, and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), an energy vampire.
In an attempt to keep a sliver of serialization required for TV, the first episode also introduces Baron Afanas, an ancient being (and the former lover of both Laszlo and Nadja) who wants vampires to rule the world and has come to make sure this group does it. He’s portrayed by Doug Jones, the go-to guy for when you need to slather prosthetics on someone, and so far he seems to be an interesting wrench in the dynamic. Unfortunately, he’s only been in the first episode so far, so it remains to be seen how well he works.
Among these new additions, Colin stands out as a favorite and is the biggest change from the movie. He feeds by draining humans of their energy, either by boring them or enraging them, and has the ability to go out into the world during daylight unlike the rest of the vampires. He’s a delightful agent of chaos, the kind that’s so unassuming you don’t even realize he’s got you. The cast as a whole have proven wonderful at making their lines land, especially Berry and Demetriou, regulars from British sitcoms. Also of note is “Lady Bird’s” Beanie Feldstein, who plays a college student and soon-to-be vampire in the first episode and makes the most of her sparse airtime.
The show wisely borrows from the visual style of the film — mockumentary handheld cameras, talking head interviews combined with cutaways to wood print illustrations and a suitably dingy and dark house. For a TV series, the special effects are quite good as well, from the gore down to the aforementioned Baron’s prosthetics. Time will only tell if “What We Do in the Shadows” can keep up the momentum, but from the first three episodes, it looks like the age of the vampires is upon us.