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How 'What We Do in the Shadows' Mastered The Art Of The (Un)Deadpan

There's a reason What We Do In The Shadows, on Disney+ Hotstar, has been such a bloody good watch over its four-season run.

How 'What We Do in the Shadows' Mastered The Art Of The (Un)Deadpan
Poster for What We Do In The Shadows S4. FX
  • Prahlad Srihari

Last Updated: 05.16 AM, Sep 10, 2022

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The vampire housemates in What We Do In The Shadows (Disney + Hotstar) — spun off from Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s 2014 feature — may be centuries-old extraordinary beings but remain none the wiser about navigating ordinary lives.

Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), the oldest of them all, is still on the prowl for a companion to spend the rest of his eternal life with. Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) puts new dreams into action, only to fail time and again. Her husband Laszlo (Matt Berry) is ever the horny braggart with tall tales of his sexual exploits. The energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) is caught in a cycle of rebirth. Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) remains the underappreciated mortal familiar, bodyguard and Mr Fixit to these four somewhat pathetic vampires living in a crumbling old mansion in Staten Island. For his dedicated service, all he wishes in return is to be turned into a vampire himself. The faint promise of hope prevents him from breaking out of recurring patterns.

“Nothing ever changes,” as Guillermo rightly points out in the Season 4 finale. The vampires, too wrapped up in themselves to change, continue to spend their eternal life parlaying, bickering and scheming. The problem with immortality is, it doesn’t take long for inertia to set in. “Nothing ever changes” indeed encapsulates the ethos of the TV comedy where maintaining the status quo is a near-indispensable quality. Characters are not expected to evolve. Even if they learn from their mistakes, the change shouldn’t be so substantial that the comedy loses its potency. The premise is always designed in a way to keep the situations self-sustaining with actions and not-always-equal reactions. The setting may seldom extend beyond a mansion, a bar or a workplace, but it must create an atmosphere of homeliness and familiarity.

In Season 4 of What We Do in the Shadows, stakes are sharpened, relationship dynamics recalibrated, and the jokes bitingly funny. Nandor searches for an eternal companion. Nadja opens a vampire nightclub. Laszlo raises Colin Robinson from infant to adult. Guillermo comes out to his family. A mansion makeover doesn’t go according to plan. Nor does a private school interview. Wraiths unionise. The Jersey Devil proves to be real. Sofia Coppola loses her head, while Jim Jarmusch can only watch on. A lot happens but nothing changes.

The show, like the movie that came before it, gains its comic mileage from the clash of disharmonious elements: the vampire comedy genre and the mockumentary framework, the mythic and the mundane, and ancient and modern customs. In fact, Nandor, Laszlo and Nadja are so out-of-touch with the internet or any technology that they panic when they open a chain email which suggests they will die unless they forward it to 10 other people.

Over the seasons, the show has drawn a lot of its laughs from how its cast sinks its teeth into the voice work. Berry remains one of the most riotous line-deliverers, British or otherwise. Consonants and vowels dance together in his mouth — and you are never quite sure how the words may come out. Comedic tension stems from the incongruity between his take on the Victorian aristocrat voice and the straight face he somehow maintains despite the ridiculous nature of the things Laszlo says. Demetriou’s deadpan brings the sweetest comic relief in the ego clashes between Nandor and Laszlo. Her brutal honesty is always welcome, expressed via some solid one-liners. Sample this for size: “There is nothing more devastating than finding out your husband has made porn...and it’s so bloody boring.”

In a bizarre turn of events this season, when Nadja’s nightclub starts bleeding customers and cash, she attempts to rejuvenate the business with bachelorette parties, vampire freestyle rap, improv comedy, and a panel discussion with historical figures brought back from the dead. Leonardo Da Vinci, Tchaikovsky, Murasaki Shikibu, Che Guevara, and Ernest Hemingway are reanimated. The kicker though is Gandhi reading out an ad for burritos between a talk about hatred.

Sometimes, the strength of the show’s comedy lies in its conscious obviousness. In a standout episode from Season 2, Laszlo flees on hearing his old vampire roommate Jim (Mark Hamill) is in Staten Island to collect long-overdue rent. By long, we mean 167 years ago. He ends up in a town in Pennsylvania (“because it sounded like Transylvania”), puts on a pair of jeans, keeps a toothpick in his mouth, calls himself Jackie Daytona, and lives out some Friday Night Lights fantasy. The “foolproof human disguise” works because of its absurd simplicity. It sure would have impressed Berry’s Grifting 101 professor Roger DeSalvo in Community. That all the vampire costumes look like they came from the goth section of a local thrift store only makes them funnier.

The show adheres to well-established norms of the vampire mythos, but also makes some careful incisions for fresh transfusions. The vampires feed on humans, sleep in coffins, transform into bats at will, and can’t abide sunlight. Garlic? Acceptable as seasoning on pizza. God? Best not to utter the word in their presence. In a blink-and-moment in Season 4, when Laszlo is reading “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?” to young Colin, we see “God” scratched off from the title. It’s these tiny details that keep the show sparkling along.

Vampires aren’t the only supernatural beings here. There are werewolves, demons, zombies, witches and ghosts as well. Nadja has a mini-me, the ghost of her living self trapped in a doll. This season introduces us to a Djinn (Anoop Desai), who grants Nandor 52 wishes. Most are used to resurrect the 37 women and men he had married when he was still a human warrior serving in the Ottoman Empire. Being Nandor, he exhausts the rest on the daftest things, like closing the coffin door.

But the show’s single greatest addition to the canon has to be the energy vampire. Colin Robinson doesn’t drain his victims of blood, but of their life force with tedious small talk, useless trivia, corny jokes, and long-winding, one-sided conversations. No wonder the corporate setting suits him well. Think of him as Dilbert meets Uncle Colm from Derry Girls. Victims don’t walk away out of politeness or mere exhaustion. In Season 2, we learn social media makes a great hunting ground for Colin as he baits online users with bad takes. An online argument ends with an in-person confrontation, where Colin finds out the fellow troll he was feuding with is an actual troll.

If Season 3 ended with a baby Colin Robinson crawling out of his predecessor’s chest cavity, Season 4 charts his metamorphosis into an energy vampire. The deliberate uncanny valley-ness of Proksch’s face floating awkwardly on the body of a kid or teenager only ups the humour quotient. The expedited growth however isn’t easy to process for Laszlo. As Colin goes from tap-dancing tween to metal-loving teen to sweater-vest-wearing adult, Laszlo must face some harsh truths. Things don’t get sadder this season than when he learns Colin will have no memory of all the time and effort he put into parenting.

Of course, Laszlo doesn’t parent alone. He gets a ton of direct and indirect help from Guillermo. Since we first met Guillermo, he has gone from long-suffering wallflower to badass vampire slayer. Yet, despite saving the vampires on so many occasions, he still can’t earn their respect. While Nandor is capable of kindness, he is very sparing in his showcase of it. Between romantic longings and roommate conflicts, the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic between the two continues to bear fruit. In the season finale, Nandor decides he is going to read for the next 15-20 years, as if that length of time means the same for humans as it does for vampires.

All vampire stories are in a way about mortality and morality. If you thought their metaphorical potential has been all but exhausted, What We Do in the Shadows gives us enough reasons each season to think again. What lends the show its emotional weight is how each vampire grapples with eternal angst, their mid-life crises so to speak, in their own way. By putting a human in their midst and having them all fumble through the absurdities of everyday existence, it explores how immortality may change one’s perspective on life, death and everything in between. Guillermo bemoans, “every day just leads to the next and then the next, and before you know it, years go by.” Nandor responds, “Isn’t it wonderful?”

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