There are pluses and minuses associated with having a job that puts you at the right hand of an immortal. “Being a vampire’s familiar is like being a best friend. Who’s also a slave,” a flunky tells us in What We Do in the Shadows, a very funny new sitcom from FX that adapts the cult indie movie from 2014.
The vampire spoof comes from Flight of the Conchords veterans Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, both of whom acted in the movie but are not seen on screen (so far) in the TV incarnation. Clement (the show’s creator) and Waititi (who directed the pilot) have brought the mockumentary-mundane style to a hair-raising Gothic situation with felicitous results: Every week brings more opportunities to watch the undead be mortified.
The principals are three ancient Old World vampires living in a house in Staten Island, an unglamorous redoubt of New York City where there are no castles, just White Castles. The imperious leader of the band is Nandor (Kayvan Novak), who seeks to conquer the New World but can’t figure out the basics. He’s a kind of stand-in for every self-styled Eurotrash aristocrat who proves unable to crack the codes of America, with the very American Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), his familiar, setting him straight about everything. On a trip to the store for urgently needed vampire supplies, Nandor remarks, “Creepy paper!” “It’s crêpe paper, master,” the long-suffering Guillermo corrects him. That kind of Sesame Street-level humor intermingles with lots of material that is in effect R-rated, so this isn’t a kids’ show so much as it is an agreeably childish show for adults.
Together with his fellow bloodsuckers, Laszlo (Matt Berry) and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), Nandor prepares nervously for a visit from their boss, Baron Afanas, who is about to awaken from a centuries-long slumber in his crypt. The trio is a little unclear on whether their boss has ordered them to conquer just Staten Island, or maybe the entire country, or possibly the New World. If the latter, though, that would include Canada: “What the f*** would anyone want with Canada?” asks Laszlo.
There’s a sad-sack, Dunder Mifflin aspect to What We Do in the Shadows even before we meet an office Dracula. He’s the most common type, apparently. The “energy vampire” doesn’t literally suck your blood, he just sucks all the energy out of your room, house, or cubicle. This small, bald man in a cardigan named Colin (Mark Proksch) is the one who most terrifies all of the others. Unfortunately for them, his superior knowledge of the intricacies of the New World makes him indispensable. Even more unfortunate for the other vampires, his natural attraction to the dull and the bureaucratic tends to sabotage their romantic aspirations. Colin’s idea for launching a total-domination scheme involves catching a city bus to a zoning-board meeting. Colin licks his lips with ecstasy: “It’s a smorgasbord of banality and despair!” The vampires do have some ordinances they’d like to propose — no noise during daylight hours, a ban on turtlenecks — but like many other citizens, they learn you not only can’t fight City Hall, you can’t even figure out where to file the paperwork to announce your proposal to fight it in the first place.
The vampires strike a nostalgic tone when they recall having been chased by mobs of angry villagers back in Europe. These days, the problems they face are a bit wan. Those electronic agreements that require you to use your fingertip as a pen while signing a tablet? Vampires can’t do it. Finding space in which to execute a ritual, someone proposes the attic: “We can’t; the StairMaster’s in there.” Requiring virgin blood to feast on, the vampires track down a group of dorky costumed college students engaged in a medieval live-action role-playing game. But getting to know this crew is yet another buzzkill. “I don’t want these virgins,” says Nadja. “They are going to taste too sad.” As in other mockumentaries, between scenes the principals snark about each other to the camera. “Guillermo is my familiar, but sometimes he’s a little too familiar, if you know what I mean,” says Nandor.
Developing the show beyond its brilliant premise is going to be a challenge; the show risks getting stuck in repeating variations on the same sketch-comedy idea without having any forward motion. But the first two episodes of What We Do in the Shadows have been a goofy delight.