These days, a good, true comedy is hard to find. Most of the actually good, thoughtful comedy is drifting away from comedy. Many sitcoms, especially ones produced by popular comedians, are more likely to be unpacking traumas in front of an audience than to be genuinely funny. The most popular comedy to come out in a couple of years was Bo Burnham’s “Inside,” which, while great and often gut bustingly funny, is also mostly about Bo’s quarantine trauma.
We need some true comedy, and the two-episode third season premiere of “What We Do In The Shadows” is here to remind us that laughter can help. Based on the 2014 film of the same name written, directed by and starring Taika Waititi, the show is about the life and times of a group of vampires living in Staten Island, presented as a documentary.
While the show was originally run by Waititi’s “Shadows” film co-writer and co-star Jemaine Clement, he left the project after its first season, leaving the show in the more-than-capable hands of Paul Simms (“NewsRadio”) and Stefani Robinson (“Atlanta,” “Fargo”). The show stars English comedians Kayvan Novak (“Cruella”), Natasia Demetriou (“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”) and Matt Berry (“The IT Crowd”) as the main vampires (who Clement says were cast because of the outsider angle it gave their performances), alongside Americans Harvey Guillen (“Werewolves Within”) and Mark Prosch (“The Office,” “Better Call Saul”).
The principle worry with any sitcom, especially ones that hit the ground running as well as “Shadows” did, is that it will eventually succumb to cliché and lack of originality. And while “Shadows” occasionally shows a few small malfunctions in its well oiled machine, it deploys a clever gambit to keep things fresh. “The Prisoner,” the first episode of the two-episode premiere, has the vampires promoted to the leadership of the Vampiric counsel after the dramatic second season finale. And in the following episode, “The Cloak of Duplication,” both the responsibilities and the resources of the vampires’ new position prove to be worthy mines of comedy. While Nandor the Relentless (Novak) and Nadja (Demetriou) are collecting vampiric taxes, Nandor entrusts the other vampires to ask out his crush for him, using a Cloak of Duplication found among their magical artifacts.
The character of Nandor the Relentless, the show’s ostensible lead, seems to have undergone a slight shift, or perhaps clarification. The show introduced him as the leader of the house, and a former Persian warrior-king. But, while the other characters found their voices separate from the film quickly, Nandor’s characterization for the most part stayed very close to Waititi’s neurotic character from the film. While this allowed Matt Berry’s scene-stealing Lazlo Kravensworth to be more prominent, it did occasionally feel like there was one character who was a walking missed opportunity.
In the new season, Nandor’s desire for rulership and “warrior’s code” are on full display, without wiping his more neurotic aspects under the rug. The increased prominence of his character also gives Novak a real chance to shine. During the Cloak of Duplication scenes in the second episode, Novak impersonates his co-stars when they are wearing the cloak to a scary degree, even getting their voices so correct that I thought he was being dubbed over by the other actors. This alone was enough to make the episode for me.
Another welcome improvement is the character of Nadja. Originally, it was clear she was included simply because the writers wanted to differentiate themselves from the male-dominated film with a female vampire. To date, she has only had one real solo plot away from her husband Lazlo, who has had two, and hers felt very “token girl.” But the conflict between her and Nandor to take the throne of the vampiric counsel feels very rooted in the pre-established character, and is a welcome improvement.
One thing that seemingly threatens to break the show’s stride is plot and continuity. The show takes great care not to have a Simpsons-esque reset button, and the building continuity has done great things in the past, like season 1’s best episode “The Trial.” Both the season 2 finale and the season 3 premiere were uncommonly “plotty” for the show, and therefore have less room for humor. In a binge-watch, it can be easy to imagine the two episodes back-to-back taking steam out of the comedy engine, as it were.
Still, the show is excellently made. The atmosphere often seems like a real vampire movie, the writing is fantastic, and the actors all have fantastic chemistry as a group. If you want to laugh, and do nothing more, this is a great show to check out.