Binge or Purge?: What We Do in the Shadows.
Can FX’s television series about three neurotic vampires match the cult classic glory of the original film?
Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s brilliant screwball comedy, What We Do in the Shadows, quickly ascended from indie obscurity to cult status. The premise of a “Real World” documentary following three vampires living as housemates was audacious. The twin-pronged celebration and skewering of vampire tropes landed perfectly. The cast, featuring Waititi, Clement, and Jonathan Brughe, delightfully embraced recognizable big-screen vampire impersonations while remaining idiosyncratic and unique. It seemed no less audacious, then, that Clement and Waititi were attempting to catch lightning in a bottle twice with a television adaptation.
For fans of the original, there is much that seems cribbed from the film. Once again, the property uses familiarity to its ultimate advantage. The characters and situations are just similiar enough to the movie to make you feel at home, but skewed enough to put its own stamp on things. After sinking my teeth into the first three episodes, I can’t say that it quite matches the original. I can say that it shows enough flashes of its own brilliance to warrant getting out of your coffin to catch the latest episode.
Episode 1: Pilot.
Nandor the Relentless and Laslo and Nadja Cravensworth are three vampires living together on Staten Island. While Nandor (Kayvan Novak) tries to keep everyone in line by adhering to the old ways, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) is more interested in indulging her vampiric desires without restraint. Laslo (Matt Berry) is primarily concerned with being shabby-chic, puttering around in his garden of genital themed shrubbery. All three get a rude awakening when an ancient vampire lord (Doug Jones) arrives to see how well their subjugation of the human population is going. Hint: not well.
The first episode is all home-cooking. Each character has clear analogues to famous blood suckers, while re-shuffling enough of their traits so as not to feel like just retreads of the film versions. It feels like the job of the three main leads is to rekindle the glow of the film’s magic while not outright recycling material. Where the episode sets itself apart is in the surrounding cast and setting.
Staten Island has a much different vibe than the New Zealand suburbs of the original, and offers new ways for our characters to comment on culture while roasting vampire lore. We also get Mark Proksch as the unwanted fourth roommate, a Psychic Vampire named Colin who drains people through boring stories and passive aggressive tactics. He’s superb and really shows that the series still has some unexpected hot takes when it comes to vampires.
Episode 2: City Council.
The trio desperately brainstorm ways to make up for lost centuries and take over Staten Island. Colin (Mark Proksch) takes them to his hunting grounds – the local city council. Old habits die hard, as each traditional vampire attempts to dominate the council in their own medieval way.
Here we get a nice departure from the formula. The scenes with the city council and the underlying snark at Americana feels like it came from Mike Judge instead of Bram Stoker. The show manages to blend its strengths with more overt sitcom style comedy, making for some fresh veins to tap.
Episode 3: Werewolf Feud.
Things hit a snag when our vampires inadvertently provoke the local werewolf population, threatening to reignite a centuries old blood feud.
So…this episode is almost a complete miss. One of the most unexpected and hilarious aspects of the movie was the boy scout-esque werewolves and their ineffective feuding with the vampires. Staten Island’s werewolves have no such character. Surely the show runners knew that bringing the werewolves in was going to be a crucial litmus test for fans. It’s almost entirely forgettable.
Luckily, Colin comes to the rescue again. At work he meets, Evie (Vanessa Bayer) a new hire who just happens to be an Emotional Vampire. With two vampires in the office, we get an escalating battle between who can depress/bore their cubicle mates the fastest. By bringing in a bit of Office Space/The Office style humor, the episode averts complete disaster.
Binge or Purge?
I thought this was going to be an easy decision. Either the television series was going to misread the original and fail or give me more of what I loved and succeed. It turns out that the series is at its weakest when it adheres to the original and really soars when it does its own thing. The characters are good, but as the season wears on…I’m starting to only watch to see more Colin. There are flashes of brilliance from Nandor and Nadja (Laslo is a little too aloof) but, man, Colin is killing it every scene.
I think fans of the original will find enough early on to keep with it, if just. I think fans of satirical sitcoms like The Office or Parks and Recreation are actually those who will find the material on offer more to their tastes. Either way, there’s enough meat on these old bones to keep me tuned in for the first season: Binge.