Adapting movies into television shows is always tricky business. Just as with film remakes, television adaptations face a host of problems from struggling to expand the scope of the original to failing to honor the spirit of the source material. For every Westworld, there are countless series that tried to adapt the likes of Blade or Taken. These series often fail to capture the spark of their inspiration, either by neglecting to involve the original creative team or by rushing production and failing to put forth a quality product.
However, judging by the pilot episode, FX’s What We Do in the Shadows series will succeed on both these fronts. Not only does the pilot capture the original film’s quirky and beloved sense of humor, but it also builds a firm foundation for what should be an entertaining and creative exploration beyond the original.
Set in modern-day Staten Island, the What We Do in the Shadows series follows the stories of three vampires—Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo (Matt Berry), and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou). Joining these three vamps are Nandor’s familiar Guerillmo (Harvey Guillen), who doggedly serves while still holding out hope that Nandor will turn him into a vampire, preferably one like Antonio Banderas’ character in Interview With The Vampire. (The Anne-Rice-obsessed-preteen in me loves that reference!) Things are going about as well as they can for these four (read: lots of dramatics and pettiness) when a visitor from the old world arrives to shake things up.
Fans of the original film should rest assured that the same dry New Zealand wit takes center stage immediately. No doubt crucial to the pilot’s success is that Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi are back as producers, directors, and writers on the series. Stefani Robinson, who worked on Atlanta as both a writer and producer, also lends her sharp talents.
From improvised interactions to cleverly written scenes setting up long-term storylines, it’s clear from the beginning that the show has a lot of material to work with. What We Do in the Shadows also packs in a dizzying amount of vampire tropes and stereotypes, all cleverly incorporated and subverted in ways that fans will appreciate and enjoy. And because much if not all of the emerging storylines revolve around relationships, the show makes ample use of its talented cast.
There’s the relationship between Laszlo and Nadja (it’s hard to sustain passion after a few hundred years), as well as Nandor and Guillermo. There are long-lost loves and random old hook-ups that make for awkward triangles. There’s a world-wide vampire hierarchy and bureaucratic oversight, which promises a more fulfilling overarching conflict when a vampire from the old world arrives. The pilot also introduces a number of regular mortal characters, who also promise to add more comedy and material. And of course, there’s Colin (Mark Proksch), the trio’s other roommate and unexpected highlight of the pilot (the less I say about him, the better).
That should also make fans happy since one of the best parts of the original was watching the vampires’ self-reflections, quarrels and petty bickering, their struggles with the mundanity of modern life, and their interactions with mortals. The pilot had lots of similar set pieces that could have easily belonged in the film (like the brilliantly executed supermarket scene between Nandor and Guillermo), but then again, the show breaks new ground with fresh takes on how these creatures grapple with modern life.
As a TV pilot, What We Do in the Shadows is one of the more solid efforts I’ve seen recently. Even for shows that enjoy long runs with tons of fans, the pilot episode can be slow and awkward with jokes that don’t quite land. The spark hasn’t quite caught yet.
Not here. What We Do in the Shadows was very well paced and full of potential. It’s a credit to the writing and production teams, not to mention that actors themselves, that the show already feels like a very mature, refined product. I’m sure the characters will evolve, which is the whole point of a TV series, but the world of What We Do in the Shadows is nearly fully realized, with immaculate world-building and developed characters ready to run around and get into trouble.
Witty remarks and sly New Zealand humor stuff themselves into What We Do in the Shadows, joined by loads of the same types of ancient etchings and classical art that so often set up the most memorable gags in the film. Scores of solid jokes and punchlines not only made audiences snicker but laugh outright. While not every joke from the pilot was a hit (just like in the film), no joke was a total dud (rare for a pilot). It never felt like the show sacrificed storytelling for the sake of a laugh. As such, the series is poised to continue to poke fun at the vampire archetypes we all love as well as explore the world more than the film ever could.
Personally, I spent much of the screening laughing my head off when I wasn’t marveling at how much the show felt like the movie while being new and different. The pilot did its job—it left me intrigued and satisfied while still wanting more. I need to know what happens to these characters, and I need to know what other crazy, hilarious shit happens. It’s safe to say that What We Do in the Shadows will be something special for both genre fans and non-genre fans (if that latter agrees to give it a chance).
I can’t wait to see what happens next.
P.S. At the screening I attended, Jemaine Clement all but confirmed the appearance of werewolves (not
What We Do in the Shadows premieres on FX Network on March 27th.