The genius of “What We Do In The Shadows”—both the 2015 New Zealand film and the 2019 American spinoff series—is its ability to reinvigorate two familiar genres by simply mushing them together. (Okay, also by making sure the folks responsible for its jokes are very, very funny.) In one hand, vampires. In the other, reality television, particularly of cohabitating kind (a la “The Real World” and “Big Brother.”) Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, and their writers, actors, and directors take those two full hands and smoosh them together with the giddy pleasure of a kid going apeshit on her Play-Doh. What’s so novel about the "Shadowsiverse" isn’t actually novel at all—it feels new and fresh because all the familiar, recognizable bits of Play-Doh get Frankensteined together. Daywalker, meet house meeting. Beheadings, meet love rivals. All the pieces are familiar, but all that smooshing makes it all seem new, even when it’s also comfortingly familiar. And luckily for, you know, everyone dealing with everything, the second season offers even more of that familiar novelty.
That’s the short version of this review. If you liked the first season, you’ll like this one too, and perhaps even more—while the absence of the delightful Beanie Feldstein is felt keenly, there’s no shortage of talent, and the show’s knack for combining visual and verbal comedy remains knacky. But the most interesting thing about this second season is something that’s different, a subtle shift that lends “Shadows” a sense of urgency felt only rarely in the first season: It’s almost, almost got a sole protagonist.
If you’d asked this writer if such a shift would work for this series, she’d have said no. Imagine trying to make “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” mostly about Mac, or perhaps more applicably, taking a season of “The Real World” and editing it so that it’s primarily about only one member of the house. This isn’t that, precisely. “Shadows” remains an ensemble comedy, and one in which its five primary players—vampires Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), Nandor (Kayvan Novak), and Laszlo (Matt Berry), “energy vampire” Colin (Mark Proksch), and Nandor’s familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén)—all contribute to the antics in nearly equal measure. (Colin’s perhaps a step down in terms of screentime, but he’s also a standout. A little goes a long way with the guy whose vampiric force is built through dull conversation and general insufferableness.)
Yet in the four episodes provided to critics for review, it’s Guillermo who floats to the surface most frequently, driven upward by a clear, compelling conflict first revealed near the end of last season. This man, who has dedicated his life to the care and protection of vampires in hopes of becoming one himself someday, is a descendant of legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing. He doesn’t like it. But as he makes very clear in the season’s opening moments, the hunt is in his blood.
That’s the kind of hook that makes for a good thriller—imagine a vampire drama in which a familiar, constantly surrounded by vampires and wholly dedicated to those vampires, suddenly realizes he’s their sworn enemy and they’re his, and is fully aware of the incredible danger posed by this situation. But because the kid with the Play-Doh is at it again, it’s also daffy and strange, rooted in palpable exhaustion and anxiety by the terrific Guillén but every bit as unleashed and unhinged as the funniest hours of that first season.
Take, for example, this insight Guillermo offers into his life: He’s not been sleeping because he’s constantly having to murder the vampire assassins being sent to terminate the Staten Island three, and the blood and screaming and fear and lack of sleep are all getting to him. So we find him sitting in the bathroom alone, housing down chocolate-covered coffee beans and watching through the window for the next attack. Then he drops them all over the floor, and when Nandor enters, the vampire assumes all the little brown pellets are evidence of some digestion and hydration issues on Guillermo’s part. Nandor isn’t suspicious about what Guillermo is doing; he doesn’t even seem to be aware of his familiar’s mounting stress. No, Nandor’s big concern is really just a moment of disgust: Why is Guillermo pooping out little tiny shiny coffee-bean-shaped nuggets instead of healthy bowel movements?
That joke is subtle the first time it comes up, and the second time too, if only because “Shadows” leaves so much time between that first utterance and the second. But it’s also tied inexorably to Guillermo’s emotional state, which evolves as events do, just like it would in that vampire drama. Don’t mistake me, this is still a show mostly concerned with the ridiculous, and that’s true for its plotting (the gang gets a chain email), its visual gags (you’ve never really seen a fringe jacket until you’ve seen it dangling upside down as the vampire wearing it sleeps), and its performances. But in these first four episodes, it’s also a journey of self-discovery and a thriller. As the vamps focus on ghosts, the dangers of overdoing it with vampire telepathy, the death rate amongst familiars, ectoplasm, and more, Guillermo focuses on keeping them safe, keeping his abilities and heritage a secret, and trying to figure out what he wants out of this life, immortal or otherwise. It’s not the Guillermo Show, but his storyline does lend a sense of immediacy missing from the first season.
He’s also just really fun to watch, as everyone in the cast is. And while the focus may have shifted, the show’s dedication to surprising guest starts is still locked in place. Some supporting characters return, but mostly we’re meeting new people played by big names, including Tony-winner Marissa Janet Winkour, Beck Bennett, and Craig Robinson, among others. Most notably, there’s Haley Joel Osment, who shows up in the premiere and is utterly, perfectly ridiculous.
The first season of this detailed FX comedy was thoroughly enjoyable, a nice, comfortable viewing experience that guaranteed at least a few sincere, out-loud chuckles per episode. If it was missing something in the age of binging, it was the kind of energy that compels you to just let that ‘play next’ feature keep a-rolling. That’s not a problem anymore. They grow ever stronger, feeding off of all of us. If the back half of this season matches the first, how will we ever stop them from taking over the world (or at least Staten Island)?
Four episodes screened for review.