Television

One What We Do in the Shadows Character Saves It From Merely Sucking the Life Out of the Film

The FX series’ “energy vampire” suggests it could transcend its source material.

Mark Proksch as Colin Robinson, who is about to sharpen a pencil in this still from What We Do in the Shadows.
Mark Proksch as Colin Robinson in What We Do in the Shadows.
John P. Johnson/FX

The American update of the quirky New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, premiering Wednesday on FX, doesn’t add much to the original’s mythology. As in the original, vampires are accursed old-world dandies trying to figure out modern life; the FX series moves the action from a rickety old manse in Wellington to a rickety old manse in Staten Island, New York. As in the original, vampires have “familiars,” human slaves who long to become undead themselves. There’s one real divergence, though: The series introduces a new kind of vampire.

At first, an “energy vampire” seems like an amusing concept that’s a real drag in the execution. Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) is a dull office drone whose boring conversation and irritating personal tics drain the fun from every interaction. That’s the point: Unlike his roommates Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), Nandor (Kayvan Novak), and Laszlo (Matt Berry), Colin feeds not on blood but on human energy.

The notion of a particular kind of soul-sucking bore being not just a bummer of a person but a malevolent supernatural force is very satisfying! But once we get the joke of Colin, we really get it, and there’s a limit to how many banalities expressed in a great honking Wisconsin accent we, the audience, want to hear. Energy vampires, we learn, can even feed on other vampires, which is why Colin’s roommates hate him so much, and soon we do, too.

By the third episode of What We Do in the Shadows, I was invested in the three standard-issue vampires and their attempts to conquer Staten Island; in the travails of Nandor’s put-upon familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén); and in the local college student and LARPer (Beanie Feldstein) whom Nadja vampirizes. But every time Colin came on-screen, I sighed. So imagine my surprise when Colin’s subplot in Episode 3, “Werewolf Feud,” became my favorite part of the series so far, and a suggestion of the ways this funny series might yet transcend its source material.

Most of “Werewolf Feud” is about, well, a feud between the vampires and a local werewolf pack. (Fans of the movie should know that these werewolves, being American and therefore coarser than the polite Kiwi werewolves of the film, are indeed swearwolves.) But in his office, Colin is confronting an evil even more terrible than himself: an emotional vampire, Evie (Vanessa Bayer). Just as we’ve all met an energy vampire, we all have been trapped in a friendship with an emotional vampire who seems to feed off our pity. Watching Proksch’s version of sad-sack malevolence face off against Bayer’s gleeful miserabilism is totally delightful. They even go to battle for the souls of their hapless co-workers!

As much as I love What We Do in the Shadows, the film, I was unconvinced that Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s deadpan horror-comedy needed to be expanded into an entire television series. How many jokes about the danger of sunrise or the uselessness of mirrors in a vampire household do we need? But the war between Evie and Colin, and the havoc it wreaks on their officemates, offers an all-new angle on the series’ mix of the supernatural and the everyday. (I have high hopes that Feldstein’s subplot—there are already signs that she might not be your typical vampire—might do the same.)

Waititi and Clement also wrote or directed all four of the episodes made available to reviewers, but future episodes come from other writers and directors, including Atlanta’s Stefani Robinson, The Best Show’s Tom Scharpling, and Kiwi comedian Jackie Van Beek, who played a familiar in the original film and co-directed this year’s very funny Netflix original The Breaker Upperers. It seems to me that What We Do in the Shadows has more up its sleeve than just re-creating the vibe of the original. I’m eager to see the show find yet more creative ways to expand upon its central conceit: that even in the antiseptic, brightly-lit modern world, monsters are all around us.