Films and TV shows often include ‘audience surrogates.’ Characters working as stand-ins for those watching, they ask questions we might need answered about plotlines and motivations. They share our skepticism, our ignorance, the nagging feelings at the backs of our heads. The TV series What We Do In The Shadows — streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar — goes further: it gives the audience a surrogate for the most annoying person we know: the person we make signals in order to avoid at parties, the person who takes ages to hang up the phone, the person who goes on and on.
What We Do In The Shadows is a magnificent comedy about vampires living together, and one of them — Colin Robinson, played by Mark Proksch — is an Energy Vampire, living not on blood but on boredom, draining the life-force of those around him by talking them to tedium. Thus he quotes the most cliched lines from movies (making sure to cite the film right after, as if speaking with parentheses), speaks at length about the ‘motion-smoothing’ setting on television sets, and carries a murder mystery board-game to a house full of football fans. When he has to flirt, he negs. Naturally.
His housemates are more traditional, which, being vampires, makes them more exotic: one of them, for instance, used to be Jack The Ripper. These cloaked and coffined creatures are without question a blast — just like those in the brilliant What We Do In The Shadows film from 2014 — but it is the addition of Colin Robinson, all modern and mundane, that allows the others to really shine while he rolls his eyes. This show is a mockumentary like The Office or Modern Family, and it takes Robinson, the everyman, to make that format work as he sighs toward the camera while his friends turn into bats. He brings the vérité.
Created by Jemaine Clement — and based on the film made by (and starring) Clement and Taika Waititi — the show, now in its third season, has become its own richly textured beast, with an ever-expanding and intricate mythology, and a tapestry of guest vampires and other supernatural creatures like werewolves and zombies. Everybody’s a subculture, which is why everyone looks like a freak to everyone else.
Matt Berry, that most distinctively voiced of British comedians, plays Laszslo Cravensworth, the freak who flies his flag most proudly. On finding the world’s greatest library, he immediately intuits that it must also be the world’s greatest collection of pornography, and while his declarations are both grandiose and vulgar, the new season sees Laszslo sincerely attempting to make friends. Even though he became a vampire, as he says, “to suck blood and to fuck forever,” he has been going out of his way to spend time with a slack-jawed neighbour and with Colin Robinson. Berry is predictably brilliant, and in one dazzling scene of the new season, he swallows a harmonica. Indescribable.
Laszslo was turned into a vampire by his wife and soulmate, Nadja, a wistful Greek vampire played by Natasia Demetriou. This season there are two Nadjas — one being a soul trapped in a Nadja doll — and one of them is eager to take on an official role in the Vampiric Council. Demetriou is visibly thrilled by this newfound position of importance (“I love thrones! They’re my favourite chair!”) but soon finds herself mired in bureaucracy. Still, she takes a stab at sincerity. Picking a font for the Vampiric Council website, she announces a preference for Helvetica “because it’s the name of one of the prostitutes for the donkeys in my village, and they were friendly.”
Perhaps the most compelling is Nandor The Relentless, played by Kavyan Novak, an Iranian warlord who was once part of the Ottoman Empire. Despite this bloodthirsty CV — and honorific — Nandor is often the nice guy of the dynamic, a The Big Bang Theory loving immortal eager to find peace and compromise. “Healthier humans mean healthier eating choices for us,” he says, to severe vampiric scorn. He shows affection not only toward vampires, but humans and even (rather controversially) a werewolf. This show is wall-to-wall jokes, with lines so brilliant each episode can be watched endlessly, but some moments cut through the laughter. Novak conjures genuine romance and passion when desperately turning a werewolf into a vampire.
Novak’s most complicated feelings — the ones that, in Anne Rice novels, cause severe hand-wringing about loving the thing you will destroy and the thing that may destroy you — have to do with his ‘familiar,’ Guillermo, a young man who pines to be a vampire. Played by Harvey Guillen, he claims this is because of Antonio Banderas in the 1994 film Interview With The Vampire but, given the silly suckers around him, it’s a wonder that crush has endured. He also happens to be a descendent of Van Helsing, and naturally gifted at killing vampires. Talk about going against the grain.
With these equations — and this gifted ensemble — at play, What We Do In The Shadows takes on labyrinthine plots that can be life-threatening one instant and wonderfully inconsequential the next. This is not only the most consistently hilarious series currently on television, but also morbidly gorgeous. Filmed almost entirely at night so as not to kill its protagonists, the series comes alive in the form of Renaissance paintings and ancient illustrations depicting vampire lore and the backstories of our foolish heroes. When a conversation cuts away to visuals of Matt Berry added into paintings of the sloops, battleships and brigantines of Laszslo’s seafaring past, the result is breathtaking.
What We Do In The Shadows has only gotten sharper. Friends, viewers, those who can’t resist a killer gag… lend them your necks.
Streaming tip of the week:
Free Guy, a big and silly blockbuster starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer and Taika Waititi comes to Disney+ Hotstar on October 15. The film — about an AI character in a video game discovering free will — is an uneven mix of The Truman Show and Westworld, but worth a laugh.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.