What We Do in the Shadows
“What We Do in the Shadows subtly taps into the notion of its vampire characters as immigrants.”
Title: What We Do in the Shadows
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Jemaine Clement 👨🏽🇳🇿 and Taika Waititi 👨🏽🇳🇿
Writers: Jemaine Clement 👨🏽🇳🇿, Taika Waititi 👨🏽🇳🇿, and various (5 white ♂ and 2 WOC)
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
Given the dire state of things, as a quick perusal of one’s news feed will confirm, it’s no wonder black comedy is having a moment. In particular, onscreen assassins and murderers, from Barry to Killing Eve, have become critical darlings. In an era where morally bankrupt leaders and governments are normalized—systems under which we are all complicit—who’s to say who the good guys or bad guys are? The respite afforded by a bit of gallows humor, to be able to laugh in the face of death and mortality, is what makes FX’s What We Do in the Shadows such a treat.
Based on an eponymous 2014 feature film directed and written by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, the television series transposes the mockumentary about a group of vampire flatmates originally set in Wellington, New Zealand, to Staten Island, New York. Heightening interpersonal conflicts to comedic effect, the show has fun with to-camera asides and confessional interviews—techniques familiar to anyone who’s ever watched The Office. But instead of planning a birthday party for a coworker, the conflict revolves around arranging a blood feast for an ancient vampire visiting from the Old World. In the pilot episode, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), a vampire’s familiar, accompanies his master Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak) to buy appropriately festive party supplies like “creepy paper” (crepe paper).
A recurring issue is how, despite their many powers, these centuries-old individuals fail to adapt to modernity. Not unlike humans, they’re equally stymied by bureaucratic red tape, whether it be attempting to overtake a local city council meeting or rescuing a housemate captured by animal control while he was transformed into a bat. The introduction of a daywalking “energy vampire” named Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch)—who, instead of feeding on people’s blood, drains them of energy by boring them to sleep—perfectly melds the occult with the banal. Far from glamorizing violence and horror, the first season ingeniously exploits gothic clichés for their campiness and comedy.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
In an upgrade from the movie, which likely fails the Bechdel Test with its cast of all-male leads, the TV version includes a woman vampire named Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) who shares the Staten Island residence with vampire housemates, including her husband Laszlo (Matt Berry). As an individual, Nadja’s character provides a hilarious spin to the evil seductress that female vampires are typically portrayed as. No doubt in control of her sexuality, she demonstrates her agency through the pursuit of her former lover Gregor, who has been reincarnated as Jeff Suckler (Jake McDorman). She is also more than a figure of lust. Assertive and opinionated on the one hand, Nadja can also be sweetly naive and a romantic on the other. Actress Demetriou strikes a perfect balance between being able to deliver a line completely deadpan and then being able to channel a range of emotions and foibles that gives Nadja dimensionality.
In a recurring storyline, Nadja endeavors to mentor a meek college student named Jenna (played by Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein), who is first introduced when Guillermo lures a group of virgin LARPers into the house to be sacrificed. Nadja’s method of helping Jenna to become more self-confident is to turn her into a vampire. For better or worse, she succeeds in guiding Jenna toward realizing her full potential in this delightfully dark storyline about female empowerment.
Two Pacific Islanders, Clement and Waititi, helm the series—possibly a first for American television! Though the storylines may on the surface have little to do with racial identity, it’s clear that as creators they thought inclusively when it came to casting and writing.
What makes the otherwise silly premise about a vampire reality show so compelling, for instance, is how the narrative subtly taps into the notion of these characters as immigrants. Although the ship that brought them to the New World arrived hundreds of years ago, their struggle to acclimate to society and reliance upon a small social network resemble the realities of many immigrant enclaves. In “Citizenship” (Episode 8), Nandor only just learns that his homeland of Al Quolanudar, located in what is now Southern Iran, dissolved some 600 years ago. To try and cheer him up, Guillermo encourages his master to apply to become an American citizen. Naturally, things do not go as planned.
The season finale “Ancestry” has even more fun playing with the concept of lineage when the housemates receive the results of their DNA tests. In addition to confirming Guillermo’s Mestizo ethnic make-up, the test reveals a bit of a twist that I won’t spoil. Meanwhile, Colin’s results simply indicate “white.” Nadja elects not to hand over her genetic information. She does often recall stories of her impoverished, Romani upbringing throughout the show, however.
Finally, whenever the opportunity arises to illustrate the larger supernatural order—whether it’s a multiracial pack of werewolves or the all-star vampire tribunal—the show notably avoids perpetuating an all-white fantasy.
The series carries on the trope of vampirism as an expression of sexuality, and specifically as a queering of sexual identity. As a couple, Nadja and Laszlo counteract the monotony of monogamy with a refreshingly open-minded, progressive, and sex positive approach to marriage. They boast of past sexual partners and participate in orgies, while simultaneously remaining loving and respectful of each other. Laszlo appears to be openly pansexual, as well.
Guillén, the out and proud actor who plays Guillermo, has been described as the “queer, human heart” of the show. His character belongs to a subculture of outcasts, so it’s only right that the community embraces individuals who do not conform to heteronormative labels. Moreover, Guillermo commands the most pathos and serves as the primary lens through which the audience experiences this underground world. Guillermo’s sexuality is never openly discussed, however. So viewers must infer for themselves whether the show has made a deliberate choice to not pigeonhole his character, or perhaps it simply hasn’t had time to address the matter yet.
Bonus for Body Positivity: +0.50
Guillén, along with Feldstein, bring a diversity in body types to the cast. At the same time, their characters are so much more than their physical appearance. It’s especially refreshing to see someone like Jenna push back against a limited imagination of vampires as only being waifish creatures.
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.50/5
The comedic horror of What We Do in the Shadows offers us a quirky balm amid actually horrific times. Sure, it’s a relatively low stakes show (no pun intended), but all the more reason to retreat into the comically paranormal and enjoy brief moments of escapism, one 20-minute episode at a time.