By Lorraine Ali / Los Angeles Times
Vampires do not eat pizza, which is problematic for the main characters of FX’s new half-hour comedy, “What We Do in the Shadows.” They’re facing an eternity in Staten Island — which may be redundant — and what else is there to consume when the humans they feast upon taste sad?
The drawbacks of immortality meet the farcical realities of present-day suburban life in this 10-episode series created by Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”).
“What We Do in the Shadows,” which was to premiere Wednesday, is carefully crafted and hilarious. For example, its undead include an “energy vampire” whose expertise is literally boring people to death, and who hasn’t had one of those in their lives?
The series’ juxtaposition of the supernatural and mundane is the perfect setting for a pack of underachieving vampires who’d rather stay home and bicker than subjugate mankind. The sharp-witted docu-satire follows them as they halfheartedly seek total control and dominance of the New World, as ordered by their returning master and Dark Lord.
He’d handed down the orders over a century ago, but they all apparently forgot. Now they’re waylaid by their own internal bickering (they’ve been roommates forever, after all) and the fact that they’re all hopelessly out of touch with the society they’re supposed to conquer.
The first issue: defining the New World. Is it just Staten Island, or perhaps all of North America?
“What would anyone want with Canada?” asks vampire Laszlo (Matt Berry).
“It has a very active trade in beaver pelts,” argues his peer, Nandor (Kayvan Novak).
The series is inspired by the 2014 feature film of the same name starring its creators, Clement and Taika Waititi. Both write and executive produce the series along with Paul Simms. The two actors do not star in the FX series, but Clement (who also directs episodes) says fans of the film might be surprised by who they see drop into the series.
“We know what it’s like to dress up in all that (period) clothing from doing the film,” said New Zealander Clement during a recent stop in Los Angeles. “It’s heavy.”
Waititi, also from New Zealand, shuddered: “And wearing those teeth all day, and the wires (to make them fly). All those buttons. No. Just no.”
“That’s at least one reason why we brought actors in,” said Clement of the new series. “And they’re good. Much better than we were.”
The fresh cast of pale faces includes Nandor the Relentless (Novak), once a ruthless Ottoman Empire warrior who’s supposed to lead the new charge. But he prefers to stick around the house, dusting chandeliers and putting up party decor for the arrival of the Dark Lord. “See, it’s creepy paper,” he says proudly, pointing to his package of crepe paper streamers.
His fellow undead are Laszlo (Berry), a dapper British fop who dresses at the height of 18th-century fashion and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), a wise seductress who looks as if she just stepped out of Bram Stoker’s Transylvania. Both are exasperated with their de facto leader and conspire against him at any chance. Their fourth roommate, energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), is the most in touch with the world outside their oft-closed doors because he’s a day-walker.
In contrast to Nandor’s heavy cape and ornate vests, Colin wears drab cardigans and works in a drab office, where he sits at a drab cubicle. He drains humans of their life force with long, drawn-out explanations about public bus routes or pencil sharpeners. He’d bore the vampires to death too — if only they could die.
He does, however, convince the others that all movements — even one to entrance all of humanity — start at the local level. So he takes them to a Staten Island Borough Council monthly zoning meeting.
“These are the ones that rule over the local peasants?” asks Nandor in disbelief.
“Yes, isn’t this wonderful?” says Colin. “I come here every week. It’s a smorgasbord of banality and despair.”
Clement, Waititi (director of “Thor: Ragnarok” and Simms (who directed and produced on “Flight of the Conchords” as well as the FX series “Atlanta”) wanted to make a comedy that appealed to American audiences, hence the Staten Island locale (the film was set in New Zealand).
But unlike a lot of water-cooler series out there, “What We Do in the Shadows” is not set up as an ongoing serial. The 30-minute episodes are refreshingly self-contained so viewers don’t have to add more mental notes in their already-crowded prime TV memory bank.
“I get frustrated now with streaming shows where you can’t watch Episode 4 without seeing 1, 2 and 3,” said Simms. “There’s a narrative arc there, but you can also dip in and dip out. Even the episodes that rely on previous knowledge are not that complicated. It’s not ‘Breaking Bad.’”
“Yeah, it’s no ‘Breaking Bad,’” Clement said with a laugh.
The film “What We Do in the Shadows” attracted a cult audience, and now the series applies the same sort of self-aware, improvisational humor to draw hilarious and otherworldly outcomes from the most humdrum situations.
Guillermo (Harvey Guillen) plays Nandor’s “familiar,” or human servant. He’s a fan boy who wants nothing more than to be made a vampire, and he often sits for interviews in which he explains the needs of the undead for mortal viewers.
“Vampires love virgins,” he explains. “It’s their favorite food. I managed to find a group with an extremely high ratio of virgins.”
This mecca of “pure” mortals is the LARP club — or Live Action Role Playing club — at Staten Island Community college. The vampires hover outside a second-story window and spy on their next meal. And of course, the humans they stalk are a pathetic lot in their ill-fitting costumes.
“I don’t want to eat these virgins,” says Nadja (Demetriou). “They are going to taste too sad.”
Despite all the laughs the series inspires, it wasn’t all fun and games on the set. The show, which was shot in Canada, had to be filmed mostly at night, and the hours were grueling, according to Waititi. There was also a strict set of guidelines that everyone on camera had to follow.
“Jemaine is really a stickler for vampire rules,” said Simms.
“I learned a lot about how vampires really are doing the film,” said Clement. “The rules you have to follow are mainly all about life and death. When improvising, one of the actors might say ‘One morning I woke up and … ‘ and I would jump in. ‘No! Not in the morning. You’re vampires, you don’t wake in the morning. And vampires don’t eat pizza!’”
“Jemaine was also strict about documentary rules,” Simms said. “There were times that I would be like, ‘Don’t you want that to be a close-up?’ And Jemaine would say, ‘A documentarian wouldn’t have gotten a close-up so no. No close-up!’ He was really very abusive.”
“Rules are important,” responded Clement. “Even for vampires. Especially for vampires.”