'What We Do in the Shadows' Review: Stuck in the Shadow of Its Source Material

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's What We Do in the Shadows premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 and immediately earned instant buzz, scoring multiple coveted festival screenings throughout the year. The film only ever earned a limited release in the United States in 2015, making it one of the lesser-seen yet critically-acclaimed comedies in recent years. The concept has been adapted for a new FX series which will likely appeal to those interested in horror comedies, but fans of the original film will likely be left suffering through a pale imitation of what made the movie magical.

Much like in the film, the series focuses on a group of vampires who have been living together for hundreds years as they go about their mundane existences. Rather than spending each episode stalking and killing their prey, the roommates squabble over the best way to go about keeping their home tidy.

One of the biggest differences between the film and the show is that the series introduces the vampires' former master who, after hundreds of years, returns to the Staten Island home and reminds his servants that they were tasked with taking over the New World. While one vampire argues that this means all of North America, another interprets it to mean just Staten Island, but whatever the territory, they have clearly been shirking their responsibilities.

Other than this narrative driving force which sets the show apart, the series merely feels like it is attempting to replicate the film for a broader audience, losing what made the original so special in the first place. Much of the film depicted the vampires just hanging out with one another, allowing the immensely talented performers to play off of one another and deliver one hilarious line after the next. The film ultimately builds towards a big party for supernatural figures, an event with very low stakes, so the incorporation of a mission for the vampires feels like it's a distraction from the fact that the chemistry between the characters is far less endearing.

what we do in the shadows tv series
(Photo: FX Networks)

Most of the characters feel incredibly similar to those from the film, giving the impression that their character descriptions read, "Vampires, you know, like from the movie." The series introduces Nadja, played by Natasia Demetriou, who helps break up the dynamic of the generic vampires merely by being a female. Another new character is Colin, played by Mark Proksch, who drains others of energy as opposed to blood. Colin also initially helps offer audiences a fresh perspective of the concept, until you realize that his character's motivation is to be boring. When you figure out that the character is true to their motivations, he ends up boring not only the other characters on screen, but the viewers themselves.

The sitcom does offer audiences entertaining moments, many of which come from the absurdity of the situation. A scene in which Nadja thinks she has reconnected with a love from years past, for example, brings laughs from her recollection of their violent and passionate history, heightened by the juxtaposition of a modern-day bachelor trying to flirt with an otherworldly being from Victorian times. The series also has many delightful instances of physical comedy, many of which focus on buckets of blood spraying from a victim, shocking the viewer who has been lulled into the comedic tone and documentary style of the series.

On paper, What We Do in the Shadows is such a specific premise that it would have run the risk of feeling like one of the Scary Movie films or Dracula: Dead and Loving It, yet Clement and Waititi's direction, script, and performances (in addition to those of stars Jonny Brugh and Stu Rutherford) strike such a specific balance of absurdity, parody, and authenticity in the film that it makes the act of replicating that specificity nearly impossible. The series' strongest moments come from the scenes in which the vampires interact with the outside world, yet the characters bantering off of one another dominates the majority of these first four episodes. The core group of the series have yet to find an effective balance with one another, even if the various performers each have their own independently entertaining moments.

Despite the series getting off to a rough start, it feels reminiscent of the first season of the American The Office. With that first episode being almost an exact remake of the UK series' pilot, subsequent episodes of the debut six-episode season attempted to replicate the source material without injecting much of its own ideas. After that freshman season, however, The Office went on to become one of the most popular and hilarious sitcoms of its generation, proving that it was a series worth investing in.

Four episodes into What We Do in the Shadows, the series has failed to find its own footing, with its recreations of effective elements from the film feeling like a watered-down version of the source material and its fresh ideas not always landing. It has a challenging road ahead, given the cult following of the film, though it's possible to overcome those obstacles to find its own voice, while the core premise will surely offer audiences unfamiliar with the film plenty of superficial laughs.

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Rating: 2 out of 5

What We Do in the Shadows premieres Wednesday, March 27th at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.