Television

The TV Club, 2019

Entry 11: Will the streaming wars kill the tiny, weird TV shows?

Photo illustration of a vampire from What We Do in the Shadows preparing to fire an arrow from a bow.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by FX.

The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya.

Pals,

Allow me to begin by performing a silent dance of gratitude for Emily, who wrote about Game of Thrones so that I didn’t have to.

Although having said that, I did have one thought, which is that those incandescent moments of creative collaboration that made Fosse/Verdon such catnip for Willa are also precisely the moment that you can tell never, ever took place behind the scenes of Game of Thrones, at least not toward the end. The thing you’re describing, Emily, where there are all these pieces that could themselves have been glorious, but they add up to something less than the sum of their parts … that’s a show that never had a transformative “Whatever Lola Wants” moment, you know what I’m saying?

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This is a bit of a cheat on a year-end discussion, but because it’s also the end of the TV decade, I’m going to chip in briefly for Halt and Catch Fire, purveyor of my absolute favorite magical creative collaboration stories this decade. Halt and Catch Fire! One of the very best shows about work, the relationship between work and the self, and changes in technology this decade, and also one of the best shows about partnerships and the passage of time.

Which brings me straight to What We Do in the Shadows, believe it or not. Sure, What We Do in the Shadows is a very silly show about dumb vampires who live in a house on Staten Island. Yes, it is hindered by a mockumentary format that can sometimes make it feel about seven years out of style. And fine, yes, nothing really happens on that show, per se. Like American Vandal’s first season, WWDitS initially feels like it’s based on a premise that has about 10 minutes’ worth of jokes in it, which someone has unwisely decided to stretch into an entire season of TV.

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This, it turns out, is one of my favorite genres of comedy: the thing where you think there could not possibly be more to say about a topic, and then someone goes and does it. (I also became Vulture’s comedy special critic this year, so I am newly qualified to declare such things.) What We Do in the Shadows is not just a dumb show about dumb vampires. It’s a show that takes the idea that these vampires have been friends for centuries very, very seriously, and then mines unending absurdity out of how long their mutual histories are, and also how little any of them have grown over the past many hundred years.

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One of my favorite ways WWDitS drives this point home is in the art direction. Especially while one of the vampires is doing a monologue about some notable past experience, the show will cut away from a shot of them speaking to the camera to a series of illustrations from their pasts. These characters have been around a long time, so the illustrations are always in historically appropriate styles—pre-Raphaelite paintings, mosaic work from Eastern Europe, tintype photographs, Dutch Renaissance portraits, all painstakingly altered so that the faces look like these particular vampire dummies rather than the painting’s original subjects. It’s a bit that tickles me so much, way beyond the point of being able to explain articulately and deep into that territory of inexplicable liking.

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The other thing I admired so much about WWDitS the way it took a style I truly thought was dead—the mockumentary thing, where there’s a film team following the characters around—and figured out a way to invigorate it once again. Or, fine, if not really “invigorate” the mockumentary, WWDitS definitely found a way to make enough jokes about it and to tie it into the premise with enough care that it became newly interesting once more. For instance: It’s not all that entertaining to think about the logistics of a film crew following a group of regular citizens. But if the subjects of the documentary are vampires who might accidentally eat one of the film crew? Or if the vampires get stuck out in the daylight and are cowering inside a shadowy place nearly sizzling to death while the human film crew just stands there, completely fine? Whole new ballgame.

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And that’s not even getting into the fact that, at some point, Tilda Swinton shows up—playing her vampire character from Only Lovers Left Alive!

There are broader points buried in here somewhere, I promise: that the TV I loved this year, I often loved for how small it felt, how much care it took in the details, and how much it committed to being the truest, weirdest version of itself. A list of similar shows this year would include Dickinson, but also Los Espookys, the last season of Santa Clarita Diet, Derry Girls, and even Superstore, a network sitcom that has never managed to crest into popular awareness as a mainstream weirdo but totally fits the bill. I even think something along these lines applies to Watchmen, a show that sweats the small stuff as much as anything else I saw this year.

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Maybe this has always been true, that the most remarkable TV is either the biggest, most ambitious swing, or the stuff that feels like microlevel perfection. The middle ground has always been dull! And I worry that although we’ve been living in a moment of relative prosperity for the world of weird tiny shows, the development pendulum is starting to swing back in the other direction—toward bigness, toward widely appealing intellectual property that feels safe, toward breadth. Despite my longing for shared TV language again, for communal TV experiences, I worry that there’s less room for tiny shows about dumb vampires.

Kristen Schaal shows up on WWDitS, too!
Kathryn

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