Much like a vampire’s reflection in a mirror, one standout comedy has been noticeably absent from the Emmy conversation despite being one of the most consistently funny shows on television. FX’s “What We Do In The Shadows” takes an obvious premise – a mockumentary in the vein of “The Office” or “Modern Family,” except it’s about vampires – and uses a stellar cast and inspired writing to wring the absolute maximum amount of jokes out of the idea. One has to wonder if the reason it’s not as strong of an awards contender is because it makes it look so easy.
The show is based on a 2014 cult comedy hit from New Zealand directed by “Flight of the Conchords” star Jermaine Clement and future Oscar-winning screenwriter Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”). In 2019 the film was adapted for American TV by Clement, with he and Waititi serving as directors, writers and executive producers. Like the movie, the show follows the misadventures of a group of immortal vampires in the modern world, though the location is changed from New Zealand to Staten Island and the cast is entirely new. The first season earned Emmy bids for its gloomy cinematography and sound editing, but nothing else.
The central strength of the series is its ensemble, starting with Matt Berry of “The IT Crowd” and “The Mighty Boosh” fame. Berry has gotten a lot of comedic mileage out of his dramatic-sounding voice and accent, but he’s never been better than he is as Laszlo, a pompous, sex-obsessed British bloodsucker. He has a surprisingly sweet relationship with his vampire bride Nadja, played by British TV comedienne Natasia Demetriou with an over-the-top Romani accent. Demetriou seems to have the same gift as Catherine O’Hara, where she can mine laughs from an odd (yet still character-appropriate) line reading.
Fellow Brit Kayvan Novak costars as their roommate, Nandor the Relentless, played as a large spoiled child who is also a deathless mass murderer. The show does a lot with his relationship and semi-friendship with his hapless wannabe-vampire familiar Guillermo, played by Harvey Guillén with an aw-shucks inherent goodness that makes his Season 2 turn to badassery even more hilarious.
The final vampire, and one of the most inspired inventions of the show, is Colin Robinson, played by Mark Proksch. As an energy vampire, he feeds off the life force of a human either by telling long boring stories, sharing too much personal info or just being generally obnoxious. It’s a brilliant way to satirize a very real type of annoying personality, and Proksch, best known as the Hummer-driving dork from “Better Call Saul,” feels tailor-made for the part.
What’s most surprising is that underneath all the supernatural darkness there is always a good deal of heart, a credit to the acting and writing. Although it’s about a gang of immortal murderous monsters who have done some pretty horrible things, it still feels like a show about a group of friends who care about each other even if they are outwardly rude and cruel. These are weirdos united by their weirdness who don’t fit in anywhere else, even in the larger vampire society. It’s that dichotomy that keeps the show funny and allows the audience to still care about the characters, even if they are centuries-old undead beings.
As a mockumentary, “Shadows,” does have some precedence at the Emmys, with both “The Office” and “Modern Family” triumphing in Best Comedy Series (the former in 2005, the latter a record-tying five times in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014). The difference is that those shows were ostensibly about real people dealing with real-life issues. “Shadows,” on the other hand, can be as funny and nearly as touching as both while still being a show about fantasy creatures. To do both while still soaking the screen in buckets of blood is a unique triumph that shouldn’t be ignored.
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