It’s no coincidence the best sitcom of the woke era is about the undead. Of comedies that premiered post-Trump, nothing beats “What We Do In The Shadows.” It would be great outside that cultural context, where the bar is lower than low, but it’s an oasis in today’s comedy desert. The vampires give FX a layer of protection.
Think of the show, based on Taika Waititi’s outstanding 2014 mockumentary, as “The Office” meets “Real World.” Like “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” “What We Do In The Shadows” satirizes conventional sitcoms by using antiheroes to get away with darker humor. In this case, the antiheroes aren’t irredeemable bartenders. They aren’t even human. “What We Do In The Shadows” follows a crew of ancient vampires living together in a decaying mansion on Staten Island, where they were sent to conquer the New World.
You’ve probably heard of the show by now, although it managed to fly under the radar for a while. It’s nearly as funny as “The Office” for all the obvious reasons. The jokes are smart and topical, but not pretentious, contrived, or politically correct. The casting is perfect across the board, as are the performances. The writing is sharp and the underused but effective half-hour sitcom format is perfectly familiar for this kind of mischief.
The show’s particular genius, and particular value in 2021, is using the observations and proclivities of ancient vampires to satirize modern America. That is to say, their thoughts evoke the absurdities of modernity while also evoking the absurdities of the past. They mostly think and act like humans but, as vampires, there’s a layer of separation that allows the writers space to play.
Not only does their status as murderous antiheroes give them some license to be awful in very funny ways, it also offers perspective on the interplay between human nature and post-industrial cultural evolution. Of course, it’s not as though the show is a treatise on modernity, but it absolutely uses the past to bring comedic perspective to the present.
That’s hardly a new concept, forcing characters from different times to interact as a vehicle for timely satire. It is, however, exceptionally well-executed on “What We Do In The Shadows” and exceptionally useful in this era of tightened boundaries and incessant iconoclasm, as we reckon with the excesses of postmodernity and contemplate the wisdom of what came before it. From Nandor’s existential dread to the Vampiric Council’s red tape to Colin Robinson’s expertise on boredom to the Baron’s self-destructive hankering for “pizza pie” and orgies, the commentary is rich.
When they marvel at technology like email or enter a dollar store, we’re reminded of how laughably new and convenient even our most banal tasks are. In “The Casino,” for instance, as the vampires experience the glories and ravages of capitalism in Atlantic City, Guillermo travels to the Old World for soil that will literally sustain them. (Nandor becomes obsessed with “The Big Bang Theory.”) The symbolism is thick, but not dense.
Yet you needn’t overthink it. “What We Do In The Shadows” really is as simple as “The Office” and other mockumentaries like “Reno 911.” It’s extremely funny. The production value is definitely higher, which allows the supernatural setting to transform the vampire’s corner of Staten Island into a quasi-magical place. Like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” the show is leaning towards more cartoonish storylines as it ages, getting slightly less dry with each passing season. But even as its third season draws to a close, and the stakes keep getting higher, “What We Do In The Shadows” is as good as ever.