FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows” is a master class in extending a slight premise boundlessly outward. That series, based on Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s film, imagines a comic universe in which ancient vampires make their way through humdrum lives stripped of Transylvanian glamour in modern New York City. There’s real comic potential, all taking place within a clearly defined reality.
By contrast, “Wellington Paranormal,” a series executive produced by Clement and Waititi, plays according to a relatively elastic set of rules. (The series is launching this month on the CW, and available to stream the next day on HBO Max, after a run on TV in New Zealand in 2018.) Its central two cops — played by Karen O’Leary and Mike Minogue, of the “What We Do in the Shadows” film — face down threats in New Zealand’s capital from across the spectrum of the supernatural, from zombies to aliens. Its diffuse sense of infinite possibility, though, exposes a certain simplicity in the show’s writing: “Wellington Paranormal” is both a show on which anything could happen and one on which too little that’s surprising does.
That goes for the writing as well as the plot. Minogue’s character, for instance (named Minogue, as O’Leary’s character is named O’Leary), has his memory erased by a vampire. Told that that’s the case, he replies, “No, I think I’d remember something like that.” This is an elegant enough one-liner the first time, but it does not really hold up to repetition. Part of the comic engine of the show is the pair’s inability to see or understand what’s going on right in front of them, including multiple sight gags involving something of real consequence happening just beyond our central cops’ notice. Dealing with a major theft from a blood bank, O’Leary suspects “high-performing sports people” seeking unfair advantage; her cluelessness here isn’t un-charming, but it also feels a little underwhelming. In a situation when a character is so clearly in denial about what’s going on, the viewer wants that denial to express itself either more credibly or more creatively. Fecklessness alone isn’t enough to hang a character on.
Minogue and O’Leary have an easy chemistry, and Maaka Pohatu, as their supervisor, is an appealing presence. In all, though, the series seems to brush up against the limits of what this creative universe can do. “Wellington Paranormal’s” loose relationship with reality ends up lending the project a certain airlessness — if absolutely anything can happen, nothing has much weight at all.
“Wellington Paranormal” premieres Sunday, July 11 at 9 p.m. E.T. on the CW