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'What We Do In The Shadows' Is Like 'The Office' — Just With Fangs And Blood

TERRY GROSS (HOST): This is FRESH AIR. The history of television has included several series and movies featuring vampires. But our TV critic David Bianculli says there's never been one even remotely like the new series premiering tonight on the FX network. It's called "What We Do In The Shadows." And it's based on a film from New Zealand. Here's David's review.

DAVID BIANCULLI (BYLINE): Over the decades, television has taken some significant new approaches to the ever-evolving vampire legend - the vampires as a persecuted social class in "True Blood," the vampire as avenging hero in "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "Angel." Back in the 1960s, there even was the vampire as tragic romantic figure in "Dark Shadows," a cult series that managed somehow to build a daily soap opera around vampires, witches and werewolves.

"What We Do In The Shadows," premiering this week on FX, takes the "Dark Shadows" trick and applies it to yet another TV genre - the comedy series; specifically, the fake documentary comedy series. It's like "The Office" only with fangs and occasional spurts of blood. And it's also got a bit of "The Odd Couple" in its comedy veins because the show is about a small group of vampire roommates, male and female, sharing the same lair, who really don't get along that well.

The original incarnations of "What We Do In The Shadows" came from New Zealand, where Jemaine Clement and Taika Waitiki (ph) wrote, directed and starred in a comedy short in 2005, followed by a very funny feature film in 2014. Both of them have substantial pop culture standing. Waitiki directed the recent "Thor: Ragnarok" movie. And Clement is one-half of the goofball musical duo "Flight Of The Conchords." For this new FX version, Clement is creator. And both he and Waitiki direct and write several episodes. The new creative addition is co-writer Paul Simms, a writer on "The Larry Sanders Show" and the creator of "NewsRadio."

What they've done for this new weekly TV version is populate the story with entirely new characters. Clement and Waitiki no longer star. And they transplant the vampire lair and the action from Wellington, New Zealand, to Staten Island, which, somehow, is just as funny, as are the jokes they choose to resurrect, like the time when a visiting elder vampire emerges from his coffin to address his followers and notices the camera crew filming the action "Office" style.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR (ACTOR): (As Valen) I come with a proclamation. The old ways are over.

MATT BERRY (ACTOR): (As Laszlo) Which is what I just said.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Valen) The new world, as you call it, is our lifeline to an eternal future.

BERRY: (As Laszlo) It's a documentary through their cameras.

KAYVAN NOVAK (ACTOR): (As Nandor) It's like they're not even here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Valen) They're filming me.

BERRY: (As Laszlo) Yes.

NOVAK: (As Nandor) Pretend like they're not there. It's kind of a natural piece. You were saying, Valen (ph)...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Valen) Centuries have passed. And you have not conquered the new world. You hide in the shadows. You are weak.

BIANCULLI: The parallels to "The Office" are even more obvious in another scene from the pilot, which starts by having a character speak directly to the camera, then follows him to an actual office as he seeks out his victims. He goes by the very unimposing name of Colin Robinson. And he's a special type of day-walker vampire, which he explains with a deadpan that makes the idea and the accompanying action even funnier. Colin is played by Mark Proksch, whose credits include "The Office."


MARK PROKSCH (ACTOR): (As Colin) My name is Colin Robinson. And I am what's known as a psychic vampire or energy vampire. This is my office, also known as the hunting ground.

Hi, Deb.

Energy vampires drain people's energy merely by talking to them.

Actual versus budget year to date, no thanks. You're going to be at that all day.

We either bore you with a long conversation...

Feeling better now - I was a little sick this weekend. Hey, Don. Don, I have to pee too. ...Or...


We enrage you. In fact, you probably know an energy vampire. We're the most common kind of vampire.

BIANCULLI: Other stars in this new series include Matt Berry as the self-styled vampire sex symbol Laszlo and Kayvan Novak as an officious vampire housemate named Nandor, who likes to be known as Nandor the relentless. And he's so relentless, he even lectures his fellow vampires about keeping the house clean. He's like an undead Felix Unger and just as annoying to his roommates.


NOVAK: (As Nandor) Now, before we go into the reading of the letter, I wanted to talk about general hygiene in the cell. Last night, there were all these people down there shouting and screaming, half-drunk.

BERRY: (As Laszlo) Well, where did they find the alcohol?

NOVAK: (As Nandor) No, they were half-drunk. They had been half-drunk.

BERRY: (As Laszlo) Oh.

NOVAK: (As Nandor) Please, finish a whole victim before moving on to a next one, OK? It's very unhygienic.

BIANCULLI: I'm tempted to end this review of "What We Do In The Shadows" by sinking to a cheap vampire punchline or pun and saying this FX series pumps new blood into the genre or doesn't bite or suck or something like that. But I've seen the first batch of episodes of this series. And they're all so clever and genuinely amusing, the makers of "What We Do In The Shadows" deserve better. So I'll just say well done and coagulations.

GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." He reviewed the new FX series "What We Do In The Shadows." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Lori Gottlieb, who writes the Dear Therapist column for The Atlantic. Her new book "Maybe You Should Talk To Someone" is about being a psychotherapist and being in therapy herself. She says she knows how hard it is to look at ourselves from another person's perspective, to see ourselves in ways that we haven't before. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.