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Monday, 1 November 2021

OPINION: Why we need to be shouting about the brilliant 'What We Do in the Shadows'

Megan Hyland looks at the brilliance of What We Do in the Shadows and why the series hasn't caught on here in the UK and why that needs to change.


My first experience of What We Do In The Shadows was watching the 2014 film halfway across the world with no furniture, no internet, and missing home. All I had at the time was a pile of DVDs that I’d borrowed from the local library and an even smaller pile of pillows to watch them on. I was missing my friends and family more than ever, and as I looked at the DVDs in front of me, What We Do In The Shadows (2014) stood out. Despite looking like any other vampire film at first, it only took a second glance to reveal the low-budget absurdity of it all. 

The film was ridiculous, jam-packed with vampire cliches and yet also unlike anything that I had ever seen before. And it was brilliant. 

For an hour and twenty-six minutes, I didn't stop laughing at the slapstick goofiness of it all. “We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves” stuck in my head for months afterwards. 

So when I returned to the UK and saw the 2019 TV series tucked away in the corners of BBC iPlayer, I just knew that it had to be my next binge-watch. 

What We Do In The Shadows (2019 – present) takes all the best elements of the film and elevates them to new heights. Because while the film may be charmingly rough around the edges – as all mockumentaries should be – the TV series maintains that whilst also managing to refine those elements that just didn’t quite work in the film. 

The premise is much the same – a mockumentary about four vampire housemates attempting to navigate the everyday difficulties of hunting and cohabiting. Created by What We Do In The Shadows (2014) star and one half of the comedy duo Flight of the Concords Jermaine Clement, the series takes a step back from the film by introducing new housemates, Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo,(Matt Berry) Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) and 'energy vampire' Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) with the addition of their eager yet timid familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén). 

Perhaps because they are able to take their time with the series compared to the film, there is a sense that writer Clement and director/producer Taika Waititi have relaxed into their roles, because the series feels so much more rounded compared to the film. It is sharper, more quick-witted, and simply flows better. They have truly mastered their craft, and it is easy to see why Waititi has gone on to win Best Adapted Screenplay for his 2019 film Jojo Rabbit, and why the series itself has been nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series. With just thirty minutes per episode, it is an easy and enjoyable watch that will leave you wondering how you finished it all in one sitting!

Despite being written and directed by two Kiwi comedians; set in Staten Island, New York; and featuring some outlandish Transylvanian accents, the series showcases a host of familiar UK talent. English-Iranian actor Kayvan Novak stars as Nandor the Relentless, a former bloodthirsty warrior with a heart of gold and talent for glitter portraits. Best known for his role as Waj in satirical dark comedy Four Lions, as well as co-creating and starring in Fonejacker, Novak brings his goofy charm and likeability to the role. In fact, the only relentless thing about Nandor is his ability to make us laugh.

Alongside Novak, we have the bawdy and brash star of The IT Crowd, Toast, and The Mighty Boosh, Matt Berry. Bedfordshire-born Berry plays Laszlo Cravensworth, a former English nobleman preoccupied with sex and suggestive shrubbery and married to his sire – and fellow housemate – Nadja. Played by English-Cypriot actress, Natasia Demetriou of Stath Lets Flats fame, Nadja is blunt, flirtatious and strong-willed, but frequently finds herself reminiscing over her human life and a former lover that is most decidedly not her former pornstar husband.  

That is not to mention the fantastic American talent of the cast, with Mark Proksch as Colin Robinson – the only kind of vampire that we can all relate to at some point in our lives. He is a truly standout character in the series, in the form of a vampire who is so boring that he is literally soul-sucking. Despite the series conforming to every vampire cliché under the sun on the surface, it actually has a lot of unique takes on vampire fiction, and Colin Robinson is just one example of this. Somehow the series manages to take a hilarious, entirely fictional concept, and make it relatable in the form of the vampiric office bore. 

And of course, there is California-born actor Harvey Guillén as Guillermo de la Cruz, Nandor’s ever-faithful familiar who spends his days as the housemates’ eternal errand boy dreaming of one day being turned himself. But from series two, we really start to see the series taking shape, and a bigger narrative for Guillermo emerges. 

This is something that the series does incredibly well – it never lets a joke sit for too long. Although there are recurring laughs and inside jokes throughout the series,  the writers are wilfully aware of the comedy rules. They know how to draw you in with something that’s familiar and make you laugh, but they also know how to move the story onwards before it ever even crosses your mind that a joke is growing stale. 

This is something that you can see clearly in series two, as it feels from the very beginning as though it’s moving in a new direction. We see character development for Guillermo in the form of a fantastic narrative twist, and we get the sense that the series as a whole is really going somewhere. This isn’t exactly common for mockumentary series and makes What We Do In The Shadows stand out from the crowd, as although it does stand-alone episodes fantastically, it does an even better job of carrying plot points through and drawing us in further as a result. It strikes exactly the right balance between ridiculous comedy and some truly gasp-worthy moments, and where series one made us fall in love with the absurdity of its characters, series two had us on the edge of our seats for them.

And it seems like series three is no exception to this. Episode One “The Prisoner” picks up a month from where its predecessor left off. After a thrilling, action-packed finale that is uncharacteristic of any mockumentary series so far, Guillermo’s secret has finally been revealed to his vampire masters. Therefore, series three opens with Nandor, Laszlo, Nadja and Colin struggling to determine exactly what they should do about it. 

It is a charming insight into who exactly the four vampires are without their trustworthy and reliable familiar – children. They can't reach a single decision amongst themselves; they still have no knowledge of how the human world works despite having a combined age of over 2000 years; and like many children, they think they have a house that cleans itself. And there is something both unique and amusing about this comparison.  

Although this dynamic has existed throughout the course of the show, with the vampires relying on Guillermo far more than they realise, it seems as though series three will see Guillermo begin to use this to his advantage. He is becoming more sure of himself and after realising his true destiny, seems more willing to side-step the rules of his role as a familiar in order to do what he wants. It has always been the case that the housemates think they have more control over their familiar than they do, but this is perhaps the first time we truly see Guillermo becoming aware of this. 

However, despite his ability to take full advantage of their weaknesses, Guillermo admits that they are his family and he couldn’t leave them even if the opportunity arose – which it does, many, many times – because he simply doesn’t know what he would do without them. And that is the heart of the show, whether its characters are willing to admit it or not. They are much more than a household, they’re a (mostly) undead, highly dysfunctional, argumentative family, and none of them know what to do without each other. 

Series three is yet another perfect example of how What We Do In The Shadows, unlike many comedy series, keeps pushing forward. Even before you start to wonder where it’s all leading, Clements and Waititi make it clear. They allow you to sit back and relax in the knowledge that the show will always evolve in line with what the audience wants, and the end of “The Prisoner” is no exception, revealing perhaps the most interesting twist of the series so far and pushing the narrative even further. Right from the off, we understand exactly how and why series three is going to be different, and we can’t wait for more. 

Our favourite characters remain familiar and as loveable as ever. This is the genius of Clements and Waititi, as they have created a show that is somehow both constantly evolving and ever-familiar with our favourite running jokes and character failings. What We Do In The Shadows is expert writing and producing in that it changes what it needs to change and when, yet keeps everything that it needs to work and stay true to its audience, which is not an easy feat. 

By now, you may be left wondering why, if the series is so popular, you hadn’t heard of it until now, and you’d be right to ask that question.

Mockumentaries have done extraordinarily well in the past, not just in the UK but across the world. Ricky Gervais’ The Office (2001) quickly became one of the most successful British comedies worldwide and has been sold to broadcasters in over 80 countries, resulting in an international Office franchise, including the equally successful and award-winning American remake starring comedian Steve Carrell. In 2016 The Office US (2005) was named as one of the 100 greatest television shows of all time.

Modern Family (2009) ran for eleven seasons and maintained a loyal fanbase throughout, winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series for five years in a row and earning $2.13 million per episode. Around the same time, NBC took its own shot at the mockumentary market with political satire sitcom, Parks and Recreation (2009), which launched the careers of the likes of Chris Pratt  Nick Offerman and stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari

Comparably, What We Do In The Shadows more than stands up to these series if not surpasses them in wit, charm and uniqueness, which is reflected in its ratings, maintaining 94% and above on Rotten Tomatoes across all three series. It has also been nominated for several Emmys as well as Writers Guild Awards, however, it has only won four awards in the three years it has been on air: Critic’s Choice Super Award for Best Actress in a Science Fiction/Fantasy Series (Natasia Demetriou); Casting Society of America Award for Comedy Television Series; Hollywood Critics Association Midseason Award for Best Cable Network Series; and Art Directors Guild Award for Excellence in Production Design for Half Hour Single-Camera Television Series. 

If you couldn’t tell by the long, drawn-out titles of these awards, they’re hardly anything newsworthy. It boggles the mind how a series with such outstanding talent, non-stop laughs and a rising star in film like Waititi at the helm receives a blank look from all those that you mention it to. But it seems to all come down to the BBC simply not promoting it enough. 

Although the show airs on BBC Two, it's available in full on BBC iPlayer. Which, try as it might, isn't the place that anyone searches for something new, as it’s almost as if that wasn’t what it was designed for. If iPlayer is to be the eternal home of such an extraordinary series, the BBC have got to shout louder and prouder about it, as it’s more than worth the fuss. The show is a massive critical darling in the US and has already had its fourth season greenlit. It feels as if, the BBC don't realise what a gem they have on their hands with the show. It’s consistently one of the funniest, most daring and charming comedies on television and sticking all up as a boxset means it gets quickly lost in the shuffle.

At this point, it’s worth asking what more the series has to do to convince people to watch. It is exceptionally well-rated across all three series; features a host of UK talent; and is produced by one of the most up-and-coming filmmakers of our time. Yet the last time I remember seeing it advertised was the via the odd poster here-and-there at bus stops across Manchester. It’s simply not enough to represent the true ingeniousness of the series, as this would have done nothing to make me watch it if I had not already been familiar with the film. 

What We Do In The Shadows is a masterpiece that never decreases in quality and the perfect watch for these cold winter nights. It deserves the same amount of promotion and attention as the BBC’s most high-profile dramas, and could benefit from the same treatment – cast members appearing on talk shows, previews and adverts in between BBC dramas, and most importantly, moving the show from iPlayer back onto our big screens. 

Until then – I’ll just keep promoting it myself to anyone that will listen! 

What We Do in the Shadows airs on Tuesdays on BBC Two. All three series are available on BBC iPlayer.


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