A common character archetype is that of the fish out of water, which usually refers to someone who has been displaced geographically, or possibly culturally. The vampires of What We Do In The Shadows certainly fit this bill, being Europeans in Staten Island, but the way they’ve been displaced, more than anything, is in time.
So yes, in the words of Hall and possibly Oates, they’re out of touch. But unlike your traditional man frozen in ice, they have no particular interest in getting up to date, far more comfortable within their own esoteric circles – and as such end up woefully, laughably credulous when they encounter one of those Bloody Mary chain emails. They may have been born hundreds of years before the Second World War, yet they’re the very image of the cartoon baby boomer.
Just to qualify this: I’m no fan of this idea of dividing people into groups based on their generation, if for no other reason than it’s inaccurate. I don’t even truck with the reductive idea that stereotypes must have a basis in fact. Nonetheless, when you consider the stereotype of the boomer, the vampires of What We Do In The Shadows fit that mask. They’re self-absorbed, dysfunctional – old-fashioned goes without saying – and obsessed with minutiae that are of little to no interest to anyone else in the world. This is also what makes them funny.
It’s sort of like Archer in its heyday, in that while the main characters are going through the motions of their role (in this case, flying around at night and drinking blood), the meat of the show is seeing them bumble about and give voice to their own neuroses. But this isn’t just a matter of them being mildly distracted – there’s a deep vein of irrepressible silliness to it all. At no point is it ever in danger of taking a story about the day-to-day life of vampires in Staten Island too seriously, which is probably a good sign.
The documentary format mainly manifests itself in the cutaways of characters talking directly to camera, although there are a few moments outside of those when the camera crew are acknowledged. It’s far from a major feature, only happening very occasionally, but this makes it the kind of unobtrusive nod to realism that makes the whole thing flow a little smoother – like The Office’s little glances.
Realism is perhaps an odd thing to cite in any work about vampires, and it must be said they’re holding up the other end of things too. This season dabbles in a few more shades of the supernatural – not as an ostentatious use of special effects, though, it’s always a means to an end.
One of the lesser-known bits of vampire lore is that, if one’s chasing you, to chuck a bunch of seeds at them so they’ll be compelled to stop and count them all (most famously embodied in Sesame Street’s Count von Count). The vampires of What We Do In The Shadows don’t quite go to that absurd extreme, but there’s the same preoccupation with petty concerns at work. Few other shows would not just base an episode around the ownership of a hat, but then bring it back as a recurring plotline, except possibly The Crown.
While there are a few of these recurring bits, the show never comes close to feeling like it’s being dominated by them, or placing too much weight on them. Viewers who didn’t see the first season could leap in here without any real discomfort. Crucially, none of the overarching plotlines ever move too quickly, or even that much at all.
Guillermo finds himself performing an odd balancing act in this run of What We Do In The Shadows, becoming less of a pathetic slug while his role is still, on a fundamental level, to be a pathetic slug. What helps is how they’ve addressed his Van Helsing heritage – it’s not some major turning point, it just becomes another headache in his depressing put-upon life. Although I must confess some disappointment that there’s a whole subplot about the vampires trying to remember his last name, and nobody ever guesses ‘del Toro’.
One aspect What We Do In The Shadows has definitely kept up from the first season is some very useful guest stars – and it actually uses them, rather than being content to say ‘wow, it’s TV’s (famous person x)’ and have them dance around a bit. This time around the main man is no less than Mark Hamill, although I didn’t realise that until some days later, given he was buried under a good two inches of prosthetics. It’s not quite as grandiose as the vampire council of season one, but makes up for this by turning up the bare-faced absurdity.
But possibly one of the absolute strongest elements of the show is Mark Proskch’s Colin Robinson, who, in my review of the first season, I worried would be the kind of one-joke character who would wear out his welcome very quickly. Even having vaulted that hurdle, he still had to grapple with being deliberately boring, which is always a careful balancing act.
But he’s gone above and beyond that, and as you get to know him better, you actually get a sense of why the rest of the vampires keep him around – as much as he can seem like the spare prick at the orgy, he’s as petty and self-serving as the others. It does, when it comes down to it, make sense that he’d end up living in the same weird puddle.
There is a bit of a missed opportunity, in a strange doll which gets possessed by Nadja’s ghost – you know, that familiar trope – which hangs around in the background but never really gets up to anything. Presumably there must have been some idea behind this, but if there is it’s not really evident enough to discern what. Maybe they’ll revisit it in the next season, which has of course already been confirmed.
That’s small praise, perhaps, in an era when studios seem to only trust established properties and known quantities – but What We Do In The Shadows is now certainly that. By dint of a good cast and good scripts, it’s quietly grown from a New Zealand passion project to one of the better mainstream comedies out there.
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