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What We Do In The Shadows is comedy that keeps getting sharper

In its fourth season, the production values, immaculate visual effects and storytelling scope of Jemaine Clement's show have been enhanced

A still from 'What We Do In The Shadows'
A still from 'What We Do In The Shadows'

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Immortality is a drag. That is the truth cutting — like a lethal ray of sunshine — through the vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows. The show’s fanged protagonists have lived their own eternities, not only histories but actual mythologies, and after hundreds of years, ennui has become their chief emotion, underscoring all that they do and say. This weariness is understandable — these bloodsuckers have seen the world rise and fall and fall again, and their sense of consequence is different from ours. Time works differently for those unbound by it. The series has always been among television’s funniest live-action offerings, but a sense of languor now permeates the proceedings. 

What We Do In The Shadows is about four vampires who live together near New York. Yearning to escape their unending routines, the characters — who frequently address a camera-crew documenting their misadventures — go off in ambitiously far-flung directions, both narratively and geographically. As chronicled in this 4th season (streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar), these are lofty and solid missions, like raising a child or running a nightclub or finding a bride, substantial-sounding missions that allow the vampires to claim they have found a purpose. Yet these immortal creatures of the night are merely pretending, convincing themselves that what they are doing will matter. Or that by doing it, they will. 

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Wrong on both counts. Created by Jemaine Clement (based on the magnificent 2014 film of the same name by Clement and Taika Waititi) What We Do In The Shadows has always struck a surreally fantastic balance between high concept and bawdy comedy, between farce and satire, between silly puns and exquisite wordplay. A djinn resembles a lawyer forever scanning fine print, and valkyries, those extraordinary creatures from Norse mythology, trade in furniture and meatballs in a night market — like their compatriots IKEA. One character lists vampire music acts (“Gloria Estefang, Bloody Holly, Bat Stevens, Batboy Slim, Hall & Throats, Tame Impaler, The Undead Kennedys”) while another describes how rich humans “are basically like veal — conceptually repulsive, but so buttery on my tongue.” 

I loved the frequently surprising show right when it started, and continued to applaud its relentless jokes and superlative production art. This time I’m rendered speechless not only by the storytelling scope, but by the show’s enhanced production values and immaculate visual effects. The vampires clearly have a budget now, not only for brutal one-scene gags featuring Sofia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch, but for extraordinary effects. Vampires turning into bats seems old hat in a richly textured mythological world where we see fairies and satanic demons, lewd vampire contortionists and affable human doppelgängers. Shot mostly, and necessarily, in the darkness, this is now a show worth gawping at. 

The pack is led by Natasia Demetriou’s Nadja, a vampire who has literally found her voice this season, and harbours ambition not only of running a vampire nightclub but also of embezzling the money it brings in. Demetriou makes glass-eyed disinterest into an art form, as when she chairs a panel alongside Tchaikovsky, Lady Murasaki Shikibu and Leonardo Da Vinci. The ever indignant Kavyan Novak plays Nandor The Relentless, a former warlord who decides at one point to pick up a leather-bound book and announce that he’s going back to reading for 15-20 years. This season Nandor (very pickily) seeks out a partner and realises the problem with finding someone who likes all the same things you do. Basically, be careful what you ask a djinn for.

Things get — even — weirder when it comes to Nadja’s husband Laszlo Cravenworth, played by comedian Matt Berry whose marvellous voice is its own special effect, whether it may be his glee in being part of a beloved reality show (the kind of television show that, like the vampires, never ends), performing a Fiddler On The Roof song on the piano, or whenever he magically and oddly plays loose with intonation: when saying he’s been “double crossed by the devil,” he makes de-vil into two words. 

This season, Laszlo is raising a child — or something child-sized, at any rate. Former housemate and resident energy vampire Colin Robinson (played by the strikingly deadpan Mark Proksch) died at the end of last season, but left behind a baby with his head. Laszlo is the one raising this ‘boy’, reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood to him at night while training him to be “charming, not sincere.” It’s a season-long joke but what makes Shadows truly remarkable is the way it gradually and gorgeously unfolds. One contrived hiding place featuring a projection slide and dotted lines on the wall is as daft as it is brilliant.

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Meanwhile, the castle’s human, Guillermo De La Cruz (played by a Harvey Guillén, more compelling every season) continues to inch toward his one singular goal, that of finally becoming a vampire. Now this is a goal that ought to feel less desirable with each episode, as Guillermo has the perfect vantage point to observe these inept immortals. Yet, coming from a family of vampire slayers, the mission he has drawn for himself is, clearly, rebellion against his own kind. We have gotten to know Guillermo and realise this rebellion may itself not mean much, but like the vampires he babysits — and like all of us who tell ourselves we’re doing important things — he is just playacting at consequence. In this undead comedy, that is the one joke that never dies. The infinite jest.

Streaming Tip Of The Week:

Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, out now on Netflix, is a perfectly timed anthology of horror films featuring works by directors as talented and varied as Ana Lily Amarpour, Panos Cosmatos and Catherine Hardwicke. Something wicked this way streams.

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