SXSW Review: FX’s series take on ‘WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS’ sinks its teeth right into the funny bone

Courtesy of John P Johnson/FX.

Preston Barta // Features Editor

Ep. 1-4

TV-MA, 30 minutes per episode.
Creator: Jemaine Clement
Cast: Kayvan Novak, Harvey Guillén, Natasia Demetriou, Matt Berry, Mark Proksch and Beanie Feldstein

AUSTIN – What a remarkable journey WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS has taken. In 2005, it started as a 27-minute short film. In 2014, it grew to become an instant classic feature-length film starring its creators, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. Now they are poised to unleash the beast yet again in series form.

The new series, owned by FX Networks, made its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX on Friday, March 8, to a packed crowd eager to discover if lightning would strike again. After watching the first four episodes of the 10-episode debut season (only the pilot episode played at SXSW, which was followed by a hilarious question-and-answer session with the cast and crew), I can proudly say it absolutely does! The new series takes certain elements from the original 2014 film and takes them to even more bitingly clever places.

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS continues the documentary-style look from before and has us following a new cast of vampiric characters. The series pilot begins with vampire familiar (a.k.a. human servant) Guillermo giving us the skinny on the nightly activities that are happening inside a vampire household. He’s been serving self-appointed leader Nandor “The Relentless” (a gut-bustingly terrific Kayvan Novak) for a decade in hopes that one day his master will turn him into an immortal blood sucker. While Nandor constantly teases the idea, he essentially compares Guillermo to a gnat, someone who sneaks up on you like John Turturro from MR. DEEDS.

“I don’t like saying this sort of thing in front of Guillermo,” says Nandor, as the camera widens out and pans over to Guillermo in the corner of the room listening. “Like I said, I don’t like saying this sort of thing in front of Guillermo.”

Hilarity ensues when we meet the rest of the household’s creatures, including couple Laszlo (a scene-stealing Matt Berry) and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou). Laszlo introduces himself as the “handsomest man in [his hometown].” But Nadja is quick to add that it’s because the rest of the village was infected with leprosy. Their dynamic as a couple gives the series its real charm. Every time Laszlo shouts, “bat,” before changing into flappy-squeak form, it left me in stitches. Nadja’s constant annoyance with her lover’s buffoonery is the icing on the cake.

‘WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS’ – “Pilot” — Season 1, Episode 1 – Pictured (l-r): Mark Proksch as Colin. CR: John P Johnson/FX.

Other characters include Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) and Jenna (Beanie Feldstein). Colin is a “energy vampire,” which Colin says is “the most common type of vampire you will encounter.” They are the monotone-voiced individuals who bore you with long conversations or enrage you by sharpening a pencil right next to your desk; hence the name “energy vampire,” a pure genius concept to introduce in the series.

Jenna, on the other hand, is an innocent and sweet human girl who’s into LARPing (Live-Action Role Playing, like the movie ROLE MODELS). She’s one of the virgin kids Guillermo is tasked with rounding up for the arrival of the vampires’ dark lord and ultimate master, Baron Afanas (the great Doug Jones). Baron is a wickedly scary looking vampire whose level of menace generates a few solid chuckles, especially when Laszlo cuts through the tension by pointing out that Baron’s missing genitals resemble paper crochet.

Like the 2014 film (which also premiered at SXSW), it’s hard to keep up with all the gags, because they hit a mile a minute. Whether it’s Laszlo giving us a tour of his “vulva garden” (a garden filled with bushes made to look like the vaginas of his past lovers), or Colin facing off with a new employee/enemy (a damn good cameo performance that shall remain unspoiled) at his desk job, there are lots of laughs to absorb.

Here’s to hoping that Clement (who directed episodes 2-4 – with Taika Waititi directing the pilot) doesn’t frontload these clever ideas. Considering the well-drawn characters, though, there’s so much more room for them to dance in the shadows. Be sure to catch the series premiere on Wednesday, Mar. 27 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX. This is your next comfort-food show to watch on repeat.

Grade: B+

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS premiered March 8 at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX. It premieres on FX Wednesday, March 27 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Feature Photo: ‘WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS – “Pilot” – Season 1, Episode 1. Pictured from left to right: Kayvan Novak as Nandor, Harvey Guillen as Guillermo, and Matt Berry as Laszlo. Courtesy of John P. Johnson / FX.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.