What We Do in the Shadows Episode 1 Review: Pilot

Meet the vampires of Staten Island, they're pretty much like the rest of us, maybe too much. What We Do in the Shadows' pilot bites reality.

This What We Do in the Shadows review contains spoilers.

What We Do in the Shadows Episode 1

The 2014 documentary What We Do in the Shadows opens with a shot of a digital alarm going off at 6 o’clock. We don’t know if it’s a.m. or p.m. The lid of a coffin rises and a hand comes out with an almost 1931 Dracula-style blind grope, and hits the snooze alarm. The Pilot for FX’s series What We Do in the Shadows references Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula in its opening as Nandor the Relentless awakens into the evening in an ascent as dramatic as Gary Oldman’s.

Well, it almost opens that way. But the damned coffin lid gets stuck, leaving Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), Nandor’s Renfield, here called “familiar,” to shimmy the latch. The vampire’s slave has already gone through an elaborate framing of our introduction to this esteemed immortal. He’s explained his job and hints at its importance. He lights candles and intones an incantation and, perfect as the buildup is, blows the opening.

Nandor is the head of a house of vampires who have been roommates for centuries. The vampires were chased from a Europe by xenophobic population prejudiced against their habit or killing and eating people. The four vampires landed on Staten Island and became slackers, spending an inordinate amount of time practicing their hisses. One segment could be called a hissing match.

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Nandor may be in charge of the house, but Nadja, played by the mesmerizingly mocking Natasia Demetriou, rules it. Nothing gets past her as she has a wry observation on everything. She is hypnotic, primarily because she liberally uses hypnosis. But also because she rarely keeps anything back and often has a very skewered view of the things she actually likes. Her boyfriend Laszlo, played with a stiff-upper-lip British bite by Matt Berry, is a romantic topiary-grower with a stylish tilt. He was the most handsome young man in a village horribly ravaged by leprosy and plague when Nadja climbed three flights of stone wall to ensnare him. Centuries later, he is still very much in love with her. She prowls the night looking for adventure, where encounters the familiar energy of Gregor, a knight she beheaded ages ago. She thinks a new person is her reincarnated ex-boyfriend, still with his head. His name is Jeff Suckler, which is a bit a letdown, but he’s got her climbing walls.

“Why would you walk home when you can turn into a bat,” Laszlo asks and flies off, bouncing off a street light or two on his way to get cleaned up for some sexual intercourse in a public bathroom. The series includes the special effects necessary to establish these are real vampires. They are not club kids and they’re not LARPers. At one point, Nandor chides his roommates for leaving half-drunk people around, it’s just not hygienic. When we see them take a regular snack, we learn he’s right. These vampires are well-dressed well-preserved slobs. When Nadja and Laszlo swoop down on a prejudiced couple walking in a park for a nighttime snack, a la Lost Boys, they waste more blood than they drink.

The understated Mark Proksch plays Colin Robinson, who represents the energy vampire, the most common kind of vampire. They walk by day, probably work in your office and are the only vampire who can drain other vampires. The other vampires spend most of their time forgetting he exists. That is a superpower. A door can never be too closed when he’s around.

further reading: What We Do in the Shadows Cast Talks About the Vampire Life

Nandor the Relentless is relentless in that he never relents. This earned him street cred while he was a warrior conquering the Ottoman Empire back in the day. Back then he spared no survivor a good pillaging. Now, as he clings to traditional criteria which he made up, his relentlessness is at best comic, and at worst, driving Nadja and Laszlo to distraction. Such as when he insists on reading the letter announcing ancient vampire royal Baron Afanas’s impending visit.  Nandor’s defining moment is his discovery of crepe paper. The first time he sees it, he says “creepy paper” in an almost Count Floyd from Second City Television mock scariness. But then, he says it again and we hear him discovering all the possibilities inherent in its creepiness. By the time Guillermo points out he’s only misreading the name, Nandor has found a jumbo pack. He relentlessly references creepy paper as a running gag throughout the episode from this point on and it gets funnier the more he pushes it.

The entire house is excited about the upcoming visit. Nandor wants to cover himself in colorful dust that sparkles, glitter, which he saw on Twilight. Najda calls Baron Afanas very charming. They had a long time romance and she says he was an amazing lover. She mentions acrobatic stuff. Laszlo also had a very intense sex affair with the baron. He describes it as animalistic, and also mentions some very acrobatic stuff. Vampires are very sexy and sexual creatures. Bela Lugosi had women swooning in the aisles in the original run of the play Dracula. Frank Langella did the same and more. The baron has the anatomy of a Ken doll, but uses it well, apparently because Nadja says that’s was what made him such a great lover. Nadja wants to bring the Baron home in a chariot pulled by eight black alligators, but they settle for a black van.

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At least they all get to feast on virgin blood. Guillermo knows where to get it on tap: LARPers, also known as Live Action Role Players. Guillermo decided it was his destiny to be a vampire when he saw Antonio Banderas make horror history as Interview with the Vampire‘s Armand. He has a wonderfully inflated vision of himself, as do the vampires, though at least they have something extra going on. A familiar is like being a vampire’s best friend, who is also a slave. A familiar’s work is never done. Whether you’re banning sunlight from the duplex or getting rid of carcasses, it is a thankless job. Guillermo is not a killer. He finds people who are easy to kill, like high-level paladins. Guillermo thinks he is going to be made a vampire. He’s pretty lucky he doesn’t up being made into a late night brunch.

further reading: What We Do in the Shadows Series Drops Clips

Baron Afanas eats the first human he encounters, one of the familiars of the house, when he is unpacked from cold storage. The documentary explained that the crew was granted protection by the subjects and were allowed to wear crucifixes. Here the camera crew comes to the attention of the viewer in the same scene. Baron Afanas is a firm believer that vampires should rule the world. He is coming to see if the New World has been populated by vampires yet, but the place is massive. The group landed on Staten Island and stayed on Staten Island, which they also do not rule. In the old days, the relentless one would merely slaughter anyone who stood in his way. Now he realizes there is no point taking over a neighborhood if you have no neighbors.

What We Do in the Shadows doesn’t stay in the shadows. It only plays there. Much like Baron Afanas, they let it all hang out. These are flawed vampires who started out as flawed humans. They’ve faced and run from adversity. The worst thing they have to face now is each other, which they are doomed to do for eternity. The oddly assembled crew for Syfy’s Mad Mad House only had to do it for a season and it simply drained them. The series’ introduction is a fun sendup of the vampire mythos and the true crime in real time culture.

What We Do in the Shadows premiered on FX on March 27.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.

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4 out of 5