Review: What We Do In The Shadows 1×1 (US: FX; UK: BBC Two)

Better than the movie

What We Do In The Shadows
Mark Proksch, Natasia Demetriou, Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry and Harvey Guillen in FX's What We Do In The Shadows

In the US: Wednesdays, 10pm, FX
In the UK: Sundays, BBC Two. Starts May 19

As a rule, TV versions of films aren’t usually that much cop. Sure, there are exceptions (eg Hannibal, La Femme Nikita), but largely you watch a movie, tune in to see the TV series and are disappointed that either it doesn’t capture the strengths of the original or it’s just the movie again and doesn’t do anything new. FX (US)’s adaptation of What We Do In The Shadows is therefore a rarity, as it both embodies many of the movie’s best qualities and transcends them to become its own, even better beast.

I wasn’t hugely impressed when I recently watched 2014’s What We Do In The Shadows in preparation for this FX adaptation. Three vampires flat-sharing in New Zealand? You could predict most of the jokes just from that description. Lots of jokes about whose turn it is to clean up after the latest round of blood-sucking, house meetings, that sort of thing.

Perhaps what you might not have predicted is just how many darker vampiric horror tropes the movie would incorporate, but given it was by Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), I was expecting something a whole lot funnier.

Directed by Waititi and written by Clement, the first episode at least of What We Do In The Shadows seems to be an attempt to get the formula right this time.

Kayvan Novak, Harvey Guillen and Matt Berry in FX (US)’s What We Do In the Shadows

New and old

For the initial scene, What We Do In The Shadows is more or less a straight adaptation of the movie. Yep, we’re in a house. Yep, we have a ‘familiar’ (Harvey Guillen) who does the odd jobs for the vampires. Yep, we have the same scene in which a vampire is supposed to make an impressive entrance from his coffin and messes it up.

However, fortunately, after that everything’s familiar but different. The cast, for starters, is something of a British invasion. Taking over from Clement as the former bloodthirsty war lord turned vampire is Phonejacker‘s Kayvan Novak, who’s playing a former Ottoman Empire general. However, he has more in common with Waititi’s OCD dandy from the original. It’s he who organises house meetings and is generally neurotic about most things.

Instantly stealing the show, however, is Matt Berry (The IT Crowd, Toast of London), who somehow manages as usual to combine incredibly naturalistic delivery with incredibly over the top delivery, to be a sort of mini Brian Blessed. He delivers lines as though they are lines, yet at the same time says them exactly as they should be said. I don’t know how he does it, but he does. Berry is more the alpha of the piece, but also incorporates something of Waititi’s dandy – as well as his own Toast persona.

Completing the new trio of vampires is Stath Lets Flats‘ Natasia Demetriou, who is a far more interesting creation than Jonathan Brugh’s film character. Ostensibly Berry’s wife, she has far more of a presence and a more interesting plot line than Brugh, complete with stalking of Limitless‘ Jake McDorman, whom she believes to be the reincarnation of her one true love.

A new addition

However, there’s a fourth member of the cast who also adds much needed originality to the piece: Mark Proksch, who plays an energy vampire, able to drain the energy of both humans and vampires. He has a lot of potential.

Plotwise, the first episode is relatively simple and echoes the movie. The vampires are hungry and need to drink blood; they’re also expecting a visit from an ancient vampire (Star Trek: Discovery‘s Doug Jones). All of which is being observed by a documentary crew, with the vampires giving pieces to camera Modern Family-style about their feelings, history, etc.

Again, as with the movie, there’s the strange combination of the mundane and outright horror. The vampires themselves are far more vampiric than Buffy‘s motley collection, for example, being able to hypnotise humans, fly, move super quickly, turn themselves into bats and so on. Most of the jokes are then about the meeting of that archetypal horror with modern life – they’re dead and can’t cast reflections, so can’t sign iPad delivery apps; sure, they can drain people of all their blood or spill litres of it as they like, but who’s going to clear up the bodies afterwards?

And whereas that all felt very predictable with the movie, here it’s all perfectly done, with a much greater confidence – and with the added asset of Matt Berry swearing like a trooper (My favourites: “Walk? Why the fuck would you want to walk home when you can turn into a bat?” and “He wants us to take over America. Have you seen it? It’s fucking massive.”).

Harvey Guillen and Kayvan Novak in FX (US)'s What We Do In The Shadows
Harvey Guillen and Kayvan Novak in FX (US)’s What We Do In The Shadows

Conclusion

I have reservations. Novak’s a little underwhelming compared to the rest of the cast, but given the short episode length and his character, that’s perhaps to be expected. The usual stereotyping of LARPers as virgins felt a bit 80s and easy comedy.

But the movie itself demonstrated that there was plenty of mileage in the format of which the show has barely scratched the surface, with werewolves, modern technology and old familiars still to be tackled.

What We Do In The Shadows has the potential to be another FX (US) gem drawing on the strengths of overseas talent (cf Mr Inbetween). It could also be one of those few TV shows that prove to be better than their source material.

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