For an upcoming feature story tied to September’s third season premiere of FX’s What We Do in the Shadows, I spoke with the cast and creative team of the vampire comedy about what’s made it the funniest show on TV. In one of those conversations, star Matt Berry noted that the show is a convergence of three different comic sensibilities: New Zealand, courtesy of creator Jemaine Clement; the U.K., courtesy of him and co-stars Natasia Demetriou and Kayvan Novak; and the United States, courtesy of the show’s other writers, plus actors Mark Proksch and Harvey Guillen. The three national flavors of humor already have some overlap, but Shadows definitely benefits from being able to combine, say, the buttoned-down style of Clement and Taika Waititi’s other work with the creative insult humor that’s endemic to a lot of Britcoms, then garnish those with ideas unique to the vamps living in Staten Island.
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Shadows is actually the second TV spinoff of the 2014 Clement/Waititi film of the same name. The first was Wellington Paranormal, which debuted in New Zealand in 2018, and arrives in America this month, where reruns of it will be shared between the CW and HBO Max. It’s also done in mockumentary style, and its main characters — bumbling Wellington cops O’Leary (Karen O’Leary) and Minogue (Mike Minogue) — appeared in the original film, where they were hypnotized by Waititi’s Viago into ignoring all the undead doings in the house. In the show, O’Leary and Minogue’s work on a case of demonic possession that inspires their supervisor, Sgt. Maaka (Maaka Pohatu), to assign them to the department’s top-secret unit tasked with investigating monsters, aliens, and other things that go bump in the night.
The timing of this show’s arrival in the States is fascinating. On the one hand, it feels very much of a piece with its American cousin, and thus will offer a salve for Shadows fans who have felt blood-starved since the FX series’ second season concluded more than a year ago. And it serves nicely to whet the appetite for that upcoming third season. On the other, Wellington Paranormal got to debut in its native land as the first show inspired by the movie, with more modest expectations, where the TV Shadows has set a very high comic bar for anything else set in that universe. And while Wellington is fun and familiar, it has a bone-dry, very New Zealand sensibility that only occasionally generates the kind of belly laughs Shadows routinely elicits from its international combination of flavors.
Over the course of the six-episode first season, O’Leary and Minogue get tangled up with demons, aliens, ghosts, werewolves, zombies, and, of course, vampires. They respond to each threat with what might seem to the untrained eye like unflappable cool, but which is clearly just them being too dumb to recognize the danger they’re in until it’s much too late. They sometimes realize they are dealing with actual supernatural beings, and occasionally even prove useful in dealing with them, but for the most part survive more by blind luck than any actual skill.
“I wasn’t born yesterday, mate,” Minogue insists at one point. “If I was, I’d still be a baby.”
Though the aesthetic is similar to the rest of this oddball franchise, the tone is gentler and more deadpan. (It feels more like the Cops episode of The X-Files, with more overt humor.) The three officers think too highly of their skills — when Maaka is asked in the zombie episode how he knows so much about the walking dead, he says, “From watching The Walking Dead” — and are for the most part oblivious to what’s happening around them. It’s the kind of comedy that demands your full attention, because the best jokes often involve things happening in the background Minogue and O’Leary are focusing on something unimportant, but the overall pace and caliber of the jokes are much more relaxed than on something like the FX Shadows.
But if it’s not as expansive or as frequently hilarious as the other Shadows, it’s amusing in its own low-key fashion, and the stars’ underplayed commitment to their characters’ ignorance is exactly what the material calls for. Too often in this kind of parody project, the actors overdo things to let you know they’re in on the joke; these three are so convincingly dim that, coupled with each of them sharing a name with their fictional alter ego, it’s easy to pretend that this is an actual documentary about a police unit in desperate need of an overhaul.
And since both Clement and Waititi have reprised their film roles on FX, it’s fair to wonder if the two spinoff shows might ever have a crossover. Lazslo and Nandor would probably tear Minogue and O’Leary to pieces, but Colin Robinson might find himself with subjects so fundamentally boring, he can’t drain any energy from them.
The first episode of Wellington Paranormal premieres on the CW on July 11th, with episodes releasing weekly on that network and then available the following day on HBO Max. I’ve seen all six episodes of the first season.
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