In its first season on FX, What We Do in the Shadows took Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s film to a delightfully banal Staten Island. It was a laid-back good time filled with the hilarious injection of out-of-touch vampires Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and Laszlo (Matt Berry) into the land of the living. Things are still hilariously dull in Season 2, but their confidence as a comedic group covers for a sleepy show that might be falling too far under the spell of Colin Robinson’s (Mark Proksch) energy vampire.
Don’t worry, it’s still funny. Even if I saw a little less than half of the second season’s 10 episodes (Kyle Newacheck directs the first three, while Liza Johnson helms the fourth), I laughed out loud at least once during each. Nandor’s familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), is the show’s dynamic center, but the vampires lack a central motivating force like last season’s edict from their vampire boss. Thus, everything resembling a plot lies entirely on Guillermo’s sagging shoulders as he grapples with his genetic predisposition to slay vampires as a descendant of Van Helsing.
But the frumpy wannabe-vampire just can’t stop killing vampires. That gives Guillermo much more to do besides bumble about the house and take abuse, letting Guillén display wildly impressive range in his understated and self-deluded confessionals—which still sometimes accidentally result in the death of nearby bloodsuckers. It’s the second-best recurring gag next to Colin Robinson, which Proksch has elevated to sublime levels of mediocrity. The energy vampire, who doesn’t even know the origins of his ability to feed off boredom, continues to be a delicious takedown of small talk, office politics, and Seinfeldian minutiae.
Otherwise, the writing is more lackadaisical and loose this season, relying on the strong solo performances to carry episodes. Without much in the way of the kind of serial storytelling that tied its first season’s silly events together, What We Do in the Shadows’ new episodes begin by slowly settling into a sitcom. Still, the groundwork laid last season helps this one stay low-key. We stay in the mansion more. The bigger visual gags aren’t massive setpieces, but sustained silliness—like fun mirror acting (which I’m always a sucker for) which only accentuates how much the leads carry the show.
Novak, Berry, Demetriou, and Proksch sell entire scenes with a look and a deadpan, even if it’s something as high concept as the vampires finding out they’ve all got ghosts of themselves. There’s such a lack of manic energy, even in the swiveling mockumentary handheld camera, that its pace relies on its performers to embrace the uncomfortable lethargy—and somehow make it funny. On the whole, the gamble pays off. I thought last season had a lazy rhythm, but it built such delightful characters and put forth such a strong vision for how its world works that the jokes don’t need too much energy—or even have to be that funny. In the long-nailed hands of these undead roommates, even a protracted “updog” bit slays.
That said, the episodes are spread across the household as a whole, which means each roommate only get a few lines to make a statement. But Berry is designed for it; his pompous declarations (even, or maybe especially, on mundane subjects) are almost always gut-bustingly primed for sound bites—fitting for a vampire. Demetriou’s less focused on one-liners in her delivery, so her moments are limited more to when she’s given space to work up to the punchline. (She also sadly has much less to do in these episodes than last season.) Novak, still seemingly the odd man out for the writers, has a few funny moments when dredging up his spacey barbarian’s savage past, but can still find himself stuck simply grinning at the camera.
The comedy’s lull and laugh cycle is a hypnotic seduction. Every eye-rolling “Superb Owl” joke (who are they, Reddit in 2011?) is upended by a cartoonish piece of scenery-swapping or utterly outlandish piece of mind-numbing suburban dreck. Every growing sense of claustrophobia is balanced with a growing world. A pair of delightful premiere cameos are just the first paranormal expansion of the show’s midnight mythology. No longer limited to werewolves and vampires, What We Do in the Shadows is normalizing necromancers, zombies, and ghosts.
These guest stars, like Nadja and Laszlo’s new familiar (Haley Joel Osment) or a local vampire hunter (Craig Robinson), add much needed gas for the show’s established quintet, and, since the undead housemates are still wanted by the Vampire Council, the possibility is still there for a cameo-laden episode later in the season. However, the swaggering silliness of the first episodes shows the acceptance of a smaller, more sustainable comedy that’s less concerned about plotting the future of the undead and more about un-living in the moment.
What We Do in the Shadows Season 2 premieres Wednesday, April 15th on FX.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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