12/1/2020 1 Comment
I’m going to preface this with a few qualifiers: I do not like “The Office.” I think “Parks and Rec” is eh, and I’ve still yet to finish it. I like sexy vampires, but mostly as an allegory for queerness, not the “Twilight”-induced sparkly confections of the 2010s except in an extremely ironic way. And yet, somehow, in this year of 2020 I fell in love with the irreverent vampire mockumentary that is “What We Do in the Shadows.”
In the shortest of explanations, “What We Do in the Shadows” is a fake documentary about a colorful bunch of vampires… who are also housemates in Staten Island. The series was created by Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit,” “Thor:Ragnarok”) and Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords,” “Moana”) and is a spinoff adaptation of the 2014 film of the same name. Each episode takes us through a day in the life of the four vampires— Nandor the Relentless, Nadja, Lazlo, and energy vampire Colin Robinson— and Nandor’s human familiar, Guillermo.
“Shadows” is technically a horror/paranormal fantasy, but leans way more into the comedy angle, which allows it to appeal to genre lovers and haters alike. The show is based in “British humor,” aka dry and deadpan delivery, a heavy reliance on nonverbal cues, and absolutely no fear of making fun of itself. There’s no attempt to sound smarter than it is, no active jabs at marginalized communities in order to provoke outrage in-show. Fatness isn’t used as a reason for ridicule, a detail that sets it apart from many other major comedies on television. And despite the many, many sex jokes, it never feels like it’s reaching for crudeness as a cover for being unfunny. “What We Do in the Shadows” is hilarious because, at any given time, only one of the five main characters is allowed to have a brain cell. (It’s usually Guillermo.)
But this is a publication by, for, and about queerness, and it wouldn’t be a fair review without talking about what “Shadows” has to offer in this respect.
Objectively, the show is queer: Not loudly, not in the sense of any main plot point so far, but all of the show’s characters have been confirmed as pansexual by executive producer Paul Simms. At least one of the actors in the main cast, Harvey Guillén (Guillermo), identifies as queer. From Episode 1, the three main vampires talk openly about past flings with both men and women, and though it’s usually in the context of a joke— this is a comedy, after all— it’s rarely at the expense of any character’s sexuality.
Take the introduction of Baron Afanas in Episode 1. Nadja starts by praising him in her solo interview, detailing their “very intense, very long” affair from a few centuries back. She ends with her worry that this might make things between the Baron and her now-husband, Lazlo, a bit awkward. Cut to Lazlo’s solo interview, where he mentions his “very intense” affair with the Baron, adding that he’s “very much looking forward to reconnecting.” The humor here is in the disconnect: the absurdity of each half of this couple reacting so differently, the dramatic irony of each being unaware of the other’s liaison, with an additional pop of surprise as the audience realizes this isn’t setup for a traditional jealousy plot.
There are some subconscious queer readings, too: On this year’s Comic-Con at Home panel, both Guillén and Kayvan Novak (Nandor) talked about interpreting their characters’ relationship with one another as romantic to an extent, though neither have commented on this as a plot point. With the same panel revealing that Season 3 will involve Nandor looking for love, there’s a question of whether the actor interpretations will make it into the show proper.
This is where things get tricky. At a surface level, “Shadows” is doing well compared to other mainstream TV, but it still falls—or has the potential of falling—into common disappointing tropes. When Paul Simms confirmed that the vampires are all pansexual, he gave “[they] have seen everything...to them, it’s vampires and then all the humans,” as an explanation for their lack of stigma towards queerness. Executive producer Stefani Robinson added in the same interview that she thinks, “it’s been very natural and normal the whole show. Characters have been open and attracted to everything.”
At the same time, the only time the word “pansexuality” has been used in reference to the characters has been in interviews,
Also standout is the fact that every explicitly gay moment in the show so far has revolved around sex. Minus a possible exception in the brief allusion to Nadja’s human lover’s past life as a washerwoman, the only emotionally rooted romances on-screen have been between men and women, and episodes like Season 1’s “The Orgy” have created a narrative that associates vampirism with sexual experimentation and being “open to anything.” Frankness about sex and sexuality is far from a bad thing. Still, the fact that more-human and less-sexually-active characters like Guillermo and Colin Robinson have yet to be shown as queer onscreen means that it’s not much of a leap for audiences to also relate this vampirism and experimentation to Nadja, Lazlo, and Nandor’s pansexuality, however unintentionally. This reinforces the stereotype that correlates bi+ sexualities and promiscuity and comes with the implication that queerness is an unnatural thing, reserved for creatures of the night.
It would be something of a let down for the show to stick to these patterns. Queer audiences look to queer characters in the hopes that we will see our own experiences, struggles, and joys accurately represented onscreen. Identities like bisexuality and pansexuality are already all too often erased, belittled, or regarded as "made up," and good media representation has been actively shown to change attitudes for the better.
All of this is more a critique of the television industry than it is “Shadows” in particular; in the context of the show, Simms’ explanation does make sense. It’s understandable that a show whose main focus is anachronistic absurdity might shy away from working relatively modern labels into the script. It makes sense that vampires that have lived for hundreds of years have had multiple partners and have used that time to experiment. At the same time, pansexuality is not experimentation, is not the same as polyamory, and is not monstrous. It is a sexual orientation central to many people's identities, and explicitly defining characters as pansexual is one way to affirm this fact. Other solutions include populating the world with more and different types of queerness, as well as giving us more emotionally rooted moments with the pan characters we do have, whether that ends up manifesting via Nandor and Guillermo’s relationship or takes an entirely new route.
For the most part, these criticisms are nitpicks. Queer identities are not monolithic, and there’s no “right” way to have one represented; by having not one, not two, but a whole cast of pansexual characters, “Shadows” has already laid great groundwork to explore how the identity might present differently. And it still has time— until the series definitively ends, any criticism has the potential to be guilty of leaving out foundational work being laid for future seasons. Compared to the general state of television, “Shadows,” with its five pan main characters, is miles ahead, and what there is to nitpick at stands out only because existing queer offerings are so few and far between.
Personally, my hope is that Season 3 will bring more explorations into these characters’ queerness, especially with Nandor on a search for love and romantic connection. I’d also like to see more and different types of queerness on the small screen, with aromantic representation at the top of the list.
There’s a lot to love about “Shadows” completely unrelated to queerness, including the casual switching between English and Spanish when Guillermo’s staying at home, the array of cameos from former vampire stars in a particularly notable Season 1 episode, and the fact that a significant portion of the show is improvised. The best shows are greater than the sum of their parts, and although I didn’t get to cover other aspects here, trust me when I say that “What We Do in the Shadows” is a refreshing romp through the paranormal streets of Staten Island— and exactly the mindless fun that I needed in 2020.
I’m going to round this off with a ranking of my top five favorite episodes:
(Note: I realized while making this ranking that all of these episodes are from Season 2, and I stand by that decision. Season 1 was hilarious, but Season 2 brought an increasing cohesiveness and greater emphasis on character that serves the show better, and really has me pumped for what “What We Do in the Shadows” has to offer next.)
1. Episode: S2E7: “The Return”
Why: Okay, this isn’t really my favorite episode— as in one I’d watch over and over— but it is, I think, quintessential “Shadows.” There’s Lazlo-Nadja banter; the infamous bad-luck witch hat from Season 1 makes a comeback, as does Simon the Devious and his merry band; Guillermo gets to do some slaying; and we get some nice foreshadowing for the Nandor-Guillermo dynamic shift without it being too arc-plot heavy. Add in Colin Robinson’s little side trip, and this is the episode I’d recommend to someone wanting a taste of the show before making the decision to watch through both seasons.
2. Episode: S2E5: “Colin’s Promotion”
Why: Season 2’s gone for more character-centric episodes, and Mark Proksch absolutely carries this one with Colin Robinson’s slightly sweet, slightly scary energy vampire power trip. Colin is an underutilized character for most of the series, so it was great to see him get a chance to shine— times three! Bonus points for Nadja vs. Nandor and “Camera 2, come over here and put your neck in my mouth.”
3. Episode: S2E4: “The Curse”
Why: It was a tossup between this and “Collaboration” for #1, but while I love Guillermo, this episode was just a little too much action over character to steal the top spot. This episode does have one of the best B-plots over the entire show, though, and Harvey Guillén kills every scene— especially the last few after the main cast is reunited. This episode also leaned a bit more into traditional horror, and that, combined with another nod to the documentary crew (with an on-screen appearance!) places it solidly in the top five.
4. Episode: S2E10: “Nouveau Théâtre des Vampires”
Why: This is 1000000% because of the big spoilery scene at the end that I will, with great difficulty, keep my mouth shut about— though I will say that if I was ranking scenes instead of episodes, the last two minutes here would outrank everything else by a mile. The “Ember Island Players”-like sequence (one of my favorite tropes) also didn’t hurt. And if you’re wondering, yes, this is the Season 2 finale.
5. Episode: S2E6: “On the Run”
Why: Objectively, this is one of the best episodes of “Shadows” in both concept and execution—plus, it features Mark Hamill as a revenge-hungry vampire named Jim. Why does it rank last on my list? I’m not particularly attached to Lazlo, so an episode centered exclusively on him was never going to hit as hard.
Honorable Mention: S2E8: “Collaboration,” which was at one point #1 on this list. Again, if I was ranking on scenes alone, then the Nandor-Guillermo confrontation would be right up there at the top, with Nandor’s visit to Collette’s apartment close behind. The A-plot here was pretty great—it’s about time Guillermo stood up for himself, and it was nice to see that Nandor actually values their relationship—and I loved in the B that Benjy did end up getting his wish. I decided to go the new-audience friendly route, though, so this ended up slipping out of the top five.