Sometimes I feel like I’m missing out, because there are two closely-related sub-genres in comedy that I just can’t tolerate: ones based on a character looking stupid or awkward, and ones where the comedy comes from how awful and unlikeable the characters are. The “Driver’s Ed” sketch from I Think You Should Leave is one of the most brilliantly funny things I’ve ever seen on television, but I can barely make it through an entire episode of that series.
So it’s a little surprising that What We Do In The Shadows has been one of my favorite series for three seasons, and so far the fourth is looking like the best one yet. The characters are so relentlessly awful but you can’t help but be fascinated by them, even if you’re not outright rooting for them to succeed. (Or at least, not to die permanently).
I liked the movie What We Do In The Shadows even if I didn’t love it; the concept was obviously brilliant enough to carry on indefinitely, but the execution felt a little bit like an improv sketch without a punchline. I felt like there wasn’t quite enough material to live up to the premise.
Now I’m wondering if part of that is because it feels like the movie was holding back. One of the remarkable things about the series is that it just doesn’t need to go as hard as it does, every episode. If I’d been in charge of it, I would’ve probably been satisfied that I’d assembled one of the best casts ever — you can tell you’ve got a bunch of actors operating at their peak when Matt Berry sometimes comes across as the most understated one — and been confident that they can take the pronunciation of one word, or one glance at the camera, and make it the funniest thing on television. Natasia Demetriou as Nadja gets my vote for MVP of the show, but everyone gets a chance to be fantastic. There’s an episode where Kayvan Novak as Nandor has to impersonate each of his male castmates, and it wasn’t until the end of the episode that I realized he’d been doing the impressions; they were so dead-on that I just assumed that he must have been lip-synching to the other actors’ VO.
And even with that cast, they’re excessive in how many new things they try to cram into the series. Make a haunted doll a recurring character? Face-map one of the main actors onto the body of a baby or a toddler for an entire season? Casually include practical-effect sirens, werewolves, orcs, and fairies for one-off jokes? Make a series of period-accurate drawings, paintings, tapestries, and engravings showing the past lives of the characters over hundreds of years, each of which will only be on screen for a second or two? Why not? It often seems like the only rule during production of an episode is that no one ever responds to a request with “no.”
But I’m also now wondering whether the movie feels as if it’s holding back because it insists on having a sympathetic protagonist. The joke of Taika Waititi’s character is that he’s kind of a hapless creature of the night, guiding the documentary crew through the story and presenting all of the weirdness as if it were normal, everyday business in New Zealand. Every one of the characters in the TV series, though, is given every opportunity to be vicious, petty, arrogant, selfish, vindictive, callous, bloodthirsty, pathetic, and just irredeemably horrible.
And yet, you get as invested as they are in whatever their petty desires are from episode to episode. For a while, it seemed like Harvey Guillen’s Guillermo was intended to be our relatable protagonist. But even at the beginning, they included plenty of scenes with him cutting up dead bodies and stuffing them into dumpsters. As the series has continued, they’ve made it more and more clear that he’s choosing to be a part of all this. It’d be foolish to go along with his self-delusion that he’s the “normal” one who’s holding onto his humanity.
I don’t think this would work at all if it were in lesser hands. They know exactly how to push every one of the characters as far as they’ll go and then pull your sympathy just at the last moment. It’s pretty amazing, and I’m still not entirely sure how they do it. But I love watching these characters who have each proven themselves to be completely irredeemable, and I’ll keep hoping they never stop being awful.