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The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke than demonic

Natasia Demetriou as Nadja: her unholy glee is infectious. Photo/Supplied

Diana Wichtel reviews a new American TV series based on the hit Kiwi comedy.

As with many things in life, we get the vampires we deserve. It’s nearly a century since Nosferatu’s Count Orlok, a reedy, bug-eyed, nightmare, cranked himself up out his coffin, stiff as a plank, and set the terrifying, if arthritic, template. Fears that have been spotted lurking in the shadows of the 1922 silent German classic: the 1918 influenza pandemic and other contagion, including that brought by migrants, with an undertow of the anti-Semitism that was soon to sweep Europe.

Times have changed, or we like to imagine they have. Vampires first became more suave – Bela Lugosi! Eventually, in such things as Interview with the Vampire, they got hot enough to be played by Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.

Those with a heart that hasn’t beaten for hundreds of years continue to stalk television: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, Twilight, Being Human, A Discovery of Witches … Being undead has become a fairly mainstream activity. I mean, everyone is on an odd special diet these days, right? Can’t we all just get along?

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Now there’s What We Do in the Shadows, the television comedy based on the 2014 movie that was a surprise success – well, I was surprised – for Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. Not that those two aren’t total home-grown geniuses. But who needs vampires and zombies in an age of Tony Soprano, Frank Underwood and real-life neo-nazis with flaming torches?

The movie was hilarious. Think 90s television-reality series Flatmates or Dunedin student thriller Scarfies, or anything featuring a bunch of idiots sharing a house, and add more blood. And a documentary film crew the flatties have promised not to eat. Well, maybe one camera guy.

Sample undead Kiwi chat:

Vladislav: Leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet!

Viago: What are you bidding on?

Vladislav: I am bidding on a table.

Now there’s the US version set in what is apparently considered the US equivalent of Wellington: New York’s Staten Island. Waititi and Clement are executive producers, but don’t appear, although Waititi has hinted enticingly at possible cameos.

The characters are new, but Kayvan Novak’s Nandor the Relentless – “Because I never relent,” he explains helpfully – sounds not unlike Waititi’s Viago, by way of, maybe, vintage sitcom Taxi’s goofy foreign innocent, Latka Gravas. Matt Berry’s Laszlo is sort of like Clement’s Vladislav, with some British hauteur. Natasia Demetriou’s Nadja is terrific. Her unholy glee is, well, infectious. Nandor’s familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), is no Jackie van Beek, who stole scenes in the film lugging blood-stained clothes to the cleaners, but he’s winningly put-upon. “Vampire-only laughing,” Nandor admonishes him when he forgets himself and tries to join in.

Then there’s Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch). A character so boring that he makes you lose the will to live is a risky sitcom proposition, but it certainly pushes undead lore into relatable territory. Who hasn’t had the flatmate who makes having your blood drained seem like a merciful alternative?

The remake does reveal that the self-deprecation and audacious bathos of the school of Kiwi comedy practised by the likes of John Clarke, Billy T James and Flight of the Conchords was always more subtle and sly than is seemed, with a dark undertow. In a small nation it’s easier to feel like everyone’s in on the joke. That doesn’t entirely translate. Tasked with taking over the New World, or at least Staten Island, the vampires compose a list of demands. Nandor wants nun-free zones. “With a sign that says, ‘No nuns. None.’”

This is more dad joke than demonic. Never mind. The best bits are the mockumentary interviews and scenes involving vampires just … shopping. “You can’t be throwing ancient coins at me,” advises a shopkeeper. He seems utterly aware that evil is abroad. But isn’t it always so?

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, Sky SoHo2, Thursday, 7.30pm.

This article was first published in the April 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.