What We Learn from “What We Do in the Shadows”

The horror comedy genre is one of my absolute favorites. From films like “Happy Death Day” to the past 50 years of Troma movies; from one-off hits like “Shaun of the Dead” to series movies like “Scary Movie” and “Army of Darkness” all the way down to the horror comedy shows of my childhood like Courage the Cowardly Dog and The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. Horror comedies have always held a special place in my heart. But what has the genre offered lately? We had 2019’s “Zombieland Double Tap”, largely considered underwhelming and a major step back from what was a brilliant premise. There’s 2018’s “Hell Fest” which tried to capture the same magic as “Happy Death Day” but didn’t exactly hit the mark, and I’d say even “Happy Death Day 2 U” missed that mark, as well. You could possibly make the case for “Parasite” being a horror comedy, but as I mentioned in my very first write-up for this site, “Parasite” is far too layered and complex to be pinned into any given genre, even one as simultaneously niche and broad as horror comedy. 

 

It would seem like horror comedy is a dead genre, or at least a missing one. Except for, that is, one incredibly brilliant pearl in the sea of the streaming wars. “What We Do in the Shadows” is a FX sitcom now entering its 2nd season and is a launch title for the recent “FX on Hulu” collaboration. The show is a spiritual successor to the 2014 feature film of the same name which was written, directed and produced by Taika Waititi and starred Jemain Clement, both of whom serve as writers and directors for various episodes of the show, as well as producers for the series. The show presents itself as a Mockumentary style show (a la Spinal Tap, The Office, Parks & Rec) and follows a household of vampiric roommates as they continuously adapt, or not adapt, to the modern world. 

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So, what makes “What We Do in the Shadows” great? The cast is great, but plenty of comedies have great casts. The writing and direction help lift up a great premise and world, and while that’s rare in television comedies, it’s not enough to sustain a series. In my opinion, what makes this show great, is it truly blends a number of conventions into one coherent series. It’s a network sitcom and can be picked up and put down on any given episode with very little required viewing, but at the same time, it thrives as a bingeable show with a number of loose plotlines running throughout the series. Whether it be Nadja trying to find the latest reincarnation of her thousand year-old lover, Guillermo, the house servant, slowly trying to work his way up to become a full-time vampire, or Colin Robinson, an energy vampire, continuing to terrorize his office co-workers with dad jokes and monotonous canned phrases about the weather. The show fuses horror and comedy in a superb way. There’s multiple jokes and punchlines per minute, but you can reasonably expect any particular episode to have some kind of a jump scare, suspense sequence, or monstrous antagonist. On top of that, it even blends together multiple flavors of comedy. The feature film predecessor was a genius work of comedy, but it was entirely produced in New Zealand, for a New Zealand audience, and has a lot of elevated humor. The show has taken that blueprint, and injected a superdose of punchlines to help make the show more palatable to a Western audience without losing an ounce of the elevated humor. 

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The cast for the show is terrific. Matt Berry has been a personal favorite actor of mine since his time on “Toast of London” and he is an absolute joy to watch. Natasia Demetriou is equally as energizing to watch, and has remarkable chemistry with Berry. The supporting cast is all equally as tremendous, but I’ll save you the commentary. One thing that warrants attention is the way this show evolves its own genres. As a Mockumentary, it doesn’t feel constrained to the standard  formula of cutaways and 1-on-1 interviews. There’s a number of visual gags, both comedic and horror-esque, that pop up during the interview portions, as well as times when they Mockumentary format is intentionally put on the backburner to help naturally progress the scenes. As a vampire show, it doesn’t minimize or belittle people who are fans of vampires. The humor of the show comes from these characters being in uncomfortable or unimaginable situations, not from making fun of horror fans or vampire films of old. 

 

I know that’s a lot to say about a show that is mostly filled with jokes of vampire orgies and Haley Joel Osment actually becoming a dead person (yes that does happen), but smart horror comedies like these are rare and it’s important to recognize them as they come along. It’s got something for just about damn near everybody. Give it a shot. As far as what we learned? Well, I’m not quite sure. But one thing is for certain, the secret to a good vampire story isn’t to make them sparkly. 

 

Season 2 of “What We Do in the Shadows” is airing on Wednesdays at 10 PM on FX and is available to stream next day on Hulu.

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