In Praise of What We Do in the Shadows and the Dying Institution of Weird TV ComediesPhoto Courtesy of FX Comedy Features What We Do in the Shadows
There’s something courageous in the fact that FX’s What We Do in the Shadows, a vampire comedy in its second season, isn’t trying that hard to appeal to a broad audience. Yes, there has been a medium-strong publicity push behind it, and yes, obviously everyone involved wants to see it reach a huge audience, but the prevailing force behind this show is weirdness. Derived from the hilarious mockumentary of the same name made by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi in 2014, the show follows the same premise: The life and times of three vicious but dorky but vain but also inept vampires living together in the same rundown house in the suburbs. They dream of former glory, but their lives consist mostly of mundane indignities brought on by their stupidity, as when Nandor the Restless (Kayvan Novak) flies into a major panic as he tries to find email addresses so he can avoid the curse of a “send this to 10 people or you’ll die!” spam email.
The show is funny, and occasionally very funny, but I’m less interested in extolling its comedy virtues than I am in rejoicing at the fact that it exists. When Clement and Waititi made their original film, they had a certain freedom to create something strange and offbeat, and Clement had the cachet from the hugely popular Flight of the Conchords at his back. American TV is a different animal, though, and for FX to take a chance on a comedy like this sends a hopeful message about the range of what’s still possible on domestic airwaves.
There’s a concept in politics called the Overton Window, defined as the range of beliefs that the American public writ large will find acceptable at any given. The window shifts—universal healthcare is more viable now by far than it was ten years ago, for instance—but the discourse is limited by what fits into that window at a given time. This concept is easily translated to TV and the Internet, but if the American public is becoming more open-minded politically, the range of acceptable content on our most popular mediums seems to be dwindling. You may have noticed that in recent years, your favorite websites are all shutting down, sometimes because they can’t make money, and other times because a rich person in power who doesn’t understand their appeal decides they no longer need to exist (RIP Gawker, Deadspin, etc.). A similar phenomenon seems to be happening in TV, in the sense that it’s becoming harder, not easier, to create “weird” television … even if the potential audience for that kind of material should be growing by the year.
That’s particularly true in comedy, where the networks have become so standardized that even a show like Community feels impossible in our current era—and indeed, was engaged in a constant survival struggle even as it aired. Seeking alternatives in comedy, you’d immediately think of Comedy Central, which did indeed have a unique, wonderful show in Detroiters… which it canceled after two seasons. The current programming at that channel is mostly dire, and the shows that succeed tend to be standard fare. Where is the next Nathan For You? The next Review? The same is true on HBO. That network’s comedies are among the best on TV, but they aren’t taking enormous risks in style or format (with the arguable exception of Los Espookys), and haven’t since Conchords.
Adult Swim is where the truly strange comedies live, and much of their programming is brilliant, but they tend to be so fully off-the-wall that only the truly depraved and mentally corrupted comedy fans (yours truly included) can appreciate them. They don’t even pretend to want a larger audience. It’s fun, but—this might be unfair—it’s also a slight cop-out in how it cedes the lion’s share of comedic terrain to the great vanilla Other, and tacitly accepts the premise that truly funny comedy will only ever be esoteric.
Which leaves FX and FXX, the networks that gave us It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Archer, Louie, Man Seeking Woman, and Baskets. Some of those were better or more successful than others, but they, and others, all had a go at existing as “normal” sitcoms while being truly strange at their core. The same is true for What We Do in the Shadows, and it’s hard to think of any other network that is routinely walking that line and pushing the boundaries of acceptable comedic fare within the structure of a half-hour sitcom.
Shadows mines laughter from a very different place than It’s Always Sunny, but they share at least one aesthetic choice: Both shows are filthy. Sunny always struck me as the first viscerally ugly comedy on TV, where every location, from the bar to their apartments, was visibly unclean in ways that made your skin crawl. The vampire house in Shadows is similar in that it puts you immediately inside a hoarder’s world of cramped, moldy rooms, with a layer of dust settling over everything. You can almost smell both shows, which is itself a major departure from the sanitized worlds of even the most transgressive comedies.
There’s one other big similarity, too, which is that the main characters in Shadows, like Sunny, are fundamentally idiots trapped by their own egos and constant delusions of grandeur. The vampires are nicer than the likes of Dennis and Charlie and Mac and Dee, despite the frequent murders, but end up hurting almost everyone due to their solipsism and insularity. The mockumentary style is a brilliant choice, because it lets us see the pathetic desire for fulfillment through fame operating at the heart of these characters, who are thirsty for more than blood. If you thought they’d have a different and more worldly perspective from thousands of years of life, you’d be wrong—in one of the funniest bits in season two so far, Nandor and Laszlo (Matt Berry) refuse to believe in ghosts, and mock anyone who does. Far from being sophisticated by virtue of their years, they’re all small-minded buffoons.
There are only two characters who truly love being vampires, and neither of them are vampires. The first is Colin Robinson, an “energy vampire” of the kind that exists in every office in this country, who can drain anyone in his presence by virtue of banal conversation. (Robinson is played by Mark Proksch, the genius behind one of the funniest bits of weird comedy in human history). The second is the show’s best character, Guillermo (called “Gizmo” by the vampires), an assistant who wants nothing more than to become a vampire himself, who is constantly mistreated by his superiors, and who shares DNA with Van Helsing and can’t stop killing vampires. He’s the straight man here, and Harvey Guillen turns in a truly brilliant performance marked by forbearance, exhaustion, servility, and the occasional bout of horrific violence. If Colin Robinson is the spineless middle manager, and the vampire are the sociopathic CEOs, Guillermo is the intern willing to debase himself and forfeit what remains of his soul to join the horrific system.
Compared to show like Veep (or Sunny, for that matter), I don’t often find myself laughing out loud while watching Shadows. The humor isn’t subtle, exactly, but it’s a steady, riveting kind of comedy that always feels satisfying even when it’s not uproarious. There’s a commitment here, and that’s critical—being weird is one thing, but without total adherence to the logic of this bizarre world, it wouldn’t work. And that’s the beauty of weird comedy in general, and why I hope networks like FX can continue taking risks on shows like these even as the realities of our culture push us inexorably toward homogeneity—by existing in a weird place parallel to our world, comedies of the Shadows variety not only make us laugh, but, crucially, they’re aren’t beholden to the social mores that define and diminish mainstream comedy. (If you find yourself liking Parks & Rec less as the years go by, it’s because the optimism feels ever more misplaced, ever more coercive.) The weird comedies will never bullshit you. In their oddity, they manage in oblique ways to say something far more incisive about our corrupt and declining world than you’ll ever get from the dreck on network TV.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here.
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