I was doubtful, at first, that the world of Taika Waititi’s “What We Do in the Shadows” (“Reservation Dogs”) would translate well into a long-form television series.
The horror-mockumentary film, while one of the most innovative comedies of the 2010s, is built on one hilarious idea: What if vampires were just as awkward and narcissistic as we are? It’s a concept that allows for clever genre subversions and one unforgettable group of werewolves (not swearwolves). But at the end of the day, it banked on the same gimmick: presenting the horrifying as casual. By the film’s final scenes, the joke felt stale.
I am happy to report after watching the first two seasons that my reservations have been put to rest. It feels like the show has truly found its characters.
Throughout the second season, after the vamps’ former human-servant/familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”) slew some of the most powerful blood-suckers in New York, fellow vampires and Staten Island housemates Nandor (Kayvan Novak, “Cruella”), Laszlo (Matt Berry, “The Watch”), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou, “Stath Lets Flats”) and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch, “Q-Force”) are terrified for the punishment that is surely awaiting them.
While the law is usually “vampire must never kill vampire,” the characters are thrilled to discover that when one “kills like 37, 38 vampires… well, these are vampires that know how to get things done.” As a result, they are all promoted to leaders of the vampiric council.
Guillermo has also had some character growth. He has gone from loveable to a mistreated servant, and finally all the way to vampire-slaying savage in season two’s banger of a finale. His character arc — by far the most drastic — stands as a perfect example of how compelling the series can be when it leaves its gimmicks behind.
The housemates keep Guillermo in a cage as they bicker about whether or not they should kill him — unaware that he is escaping whenever he wants to prepare the house and get himself food.
The energy vampire Colin Robinson also returns in the third season. There was no one else I was more excited to see. As an energy vampire, he literally sucks the life out of his victims by boring them. On this joke, I was happy to see the creative team loosen up, as they added some absurd, new layers to the enigma that is his character. Robinson now, inexplicably, wants to look through Guillermo’s poop.
The show also pokes fun at the concept of “negging” — a form of emotional manipulation where backhanded compliments are used to make someone crave their approval. “Watch and learn,” Colin Robinson says as he struts into the gym and immediately greets the woman at the counter with, “Hey, dipshit.” It’s one of the funniest scenes in the series, and unsurprisingly, it has nothing to do with the show’s foundational joke.
“What We Do in the Shadows” joins the ranks of other shows that evolve past their original concept. Writer/director Sam Zvibleman (“The Neddeaus of Duqesne Island”) best explains the transformation in an interview with IndieWire. He said that while working on his show “Pen15,” he realized, “There’s a deeper laugh in the show even if it’s not laughing out loud.”
“Pen15,” which focuses on two seventh-graders played by adult women, took dramatic risks in its sophomore effort that helped propel it to its most interesting place yet. Zvibleman continues, “When you think back on the scene and the fact that they’re women playing these girls and playing this so truthfully, that’s even a more insane notion.”
There’s a reason why “What We Do in the Shadows” has so much potential, and it isn’t just because writing vampires to the tone of “The Office” is so comically absurd. It’s the humanizing that comes with it. The more we pity Nandor for his child-like vulnerability, or admire Nadja for her stubborn, misled confidence, the funnier the original gag becomes.
Bits get tired. Characters don’t have to. So far, season three seems to have finally gotten its characters. The more they spend time exploring them, the deeper the laughs will get.
Daily Arts Writer Ben Servetah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.