The degree to which the mockumentary format popularized by “The Office” has reinvented television comedy is hard to overstate. It’s not merely the direct-to-camera “confessional”-style interviews, which have grown so familiar on shows like “Modern Family” that they barely register anymore as stylistic choices but just as what comedy is. It’s also the purposeful awkwardness, a showy willingness to indulge a long pause or a furtive glance at the camera that pushes beyond naturalism into its own kind of theatricality.
Which makes “What We Do in the Shadows,” premiering March 27 after a screening at South by Southwest, a clever, if minor-key, twist on the format. Taking place among a circle of vampires, the series (based on a New Zealand film of the same name directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi) applies a format whose secret weapon is to expose its subjects’ inherent delusions and dramas to a group of creatures straight out of Gothic horror. They come to seem like something both less and more than vampires — less glamorous, but closer, perhaps, to human.
This show’s blood-suckers have set up camp in Staten Island, a blandly American canvas that perpetually lets the air out of the vamps’ sense of themselves as all-powerful beings. Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetrious, and Matt Berry are witty, engaging company as three eternal beings whose vanities run up against the banal reality of trying to find fresh blood and to conquer a local populace that seems pleasantly impervious; they whine and natter, as we know they’ve been doing for decades or centuries. That their nebbishy assistant Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) is in awe of his overlords only serves to emphasize how unimpressive they really seem. Other standouts include Beanie Feldstein (of “Lady Bird”) as a young woman turned to vampirism and Mark Proksch as the show’s one truly ingenious creation — an “energy vampire” who thrives off of boring those near him practically to death. (No surprise that his scenes largely take place in an office.)
This show’s laughs are closer to chuckles than guffaws — it’s well-observed but its ambitions feel more minor than much else in this era of the relentless big swing. At times, it feels as though the show’s main goal is to present witty wordplay voiced by a few memorable characters. But that can certainly be enough, not least when the show’s mockumentary format feels, for the first time in a while, like something new.
“What We Do in the Shadows.” FX. March 27. 10 episodes (four screened for review).
Cast: Matt Berry, Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, Mark Proksch
Executive Producers: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Paul Simms, Scott Rudin, Garrett Basch, Eli Bush
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