Is the sameness of streaming networks and algorithm-driven ‘prestige TV’ draining you of your lifeblood? You could do worse than sink your fangs into Kiwi comedian Jemaine Clement’s What We Do in the Shadows, one of the funniest TV shows currently on air. Based on Clement and Taika Waititi’s eponymous 2014 film (Waititi serves as executive producer and has directed several episodes), What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary horror-comedy about the lives of the urban undead. The narrative follows four vampires living together in Staten Island, led by Nandor the Restless (Kayvan Novak). Nandor’s long-suffering ‘familiar’ (a human bound in servitude to a vampire) Guillermo de la Cruz (Harvey Guillén) tries his best to keep the existence of the four vampires a secret from the human world—a task made much harder by the group’s ill-advised antics and everyday buffoonery.
Over and above the show’s considerable comedic virtues, What We Do in the Shadows is also in conversation with the vampire genre’s bigoted history (Bram Stoker’s character Dracula was supposed to represent the threat posed to ‘European values’ by the ‘invading’ Orient) and its notions of ‘blood purity’. In doing so, it also challenges contemporary, normative ideas of American-ness. In the opening episode of the fifth season (released last week, streaming on Disney+Hotstar in India), we see Guillermo hiding his newly-fangled status as vampire—he doesn’t want Nandor to know that he offered his neck to a different master. The episode ends with Guillermo delivering a monologue about fitting in and the value of community.
“Being a vampire is no different than being a human. We’re all just doing what it takes to survive. We go on about our day. Blend in. Act like everyone else. But really, we’re all just hiding in plain sight.”
The ‘vampires are just like you and me’ sentiment is hilarious in a deadpan way, of course. But Guillermo is also a character that represents in-betweenness and hybrid identities from the very first episode. In the opening season we learn that he wants to be a vampire because of Armand, Antonio Banderas’ character from the 90s Hollywood film Interview with the Vampire; representation matters, folks!
Towards the end of the season Guillermo gets himself and the four vampires DNA-tested. He learns that he is “mostly Mestizo”. In the Latin American context, mestizo means an individual of mixed indigenous and European heritage. Guillermo is therefore part coloniser, part colonised. And the European strand of his heritage comes from the legendary vampire hunter Abraham van Helsing (again, from the novel Dracula) so he is also part-vampire, part-vampire hunter. Significantly, Colin Robinson, the ‘energy vampire’ who feeds on people by literally boring them into submission, is revealed to be “100% white”.
What We Do in the Shadows uses Guillermo’s in-betweenness to great comedic effect—when he’s forced to kill a great many vampires at one go in order to save Nandor and his flatmates, for example. The scene is grotesque and bloody and just bagfuls of fun, as the mousy, soft-spoken Guillermo transforms into an acrobatic, laser-focused killer in the blink of an eye. And what of Nandor? He’s a Muslim/Turkic-coded character from the beginning. A super-funny episode sees him resurrecting his 30-plus dead (human) wives and having them ‘audition’ to be his wife in the vampiric afterlife. This episode plays with the caricature of the polygamous, sexually threatening ‘Oriental’ in a masterful way.
In latter seasons we learn that Nandor’s homeland is a lapsed nation called ‘Al Quolanudar’, in modern-day Iran. He ultimately tries—and predictably, fails—to acquire American citizenship. In a very funny scene that’s also curiously poignant, we see Nandor failing to complete the American Pledge of Allegiance because of the phrase “one nation under God”. This phrase, crucially, was not a part of the original pledge and was added in 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a secular document’s sole concession to Christian theology.
But perhaps the most revelatory scene in this context is from the season one episode called ‘Werewolf Feud’, where Nadja (one of the show’s four main vampire characters) ignorantly asks a bunch of werewolves, “are all you werewolves Indian?” This impolitic question prompts groans and a muffled cry of “fucking Twilight!” The Twilight bit is a reference to the fact that the franchise presented a racialised, problematic portrayal of a Native American werewolf clan, that too led by a white actor (Taylor Lautner, who conveniently started claiming Native American ancestry in interviews after widespread criticism).
The leader of the werewolves, a man with one Indian parent called Arjan (played by Arj Barker, who is half-Indian himself), retorts: “No, we’re not all Indians. Well, I’m an Indian but that’s because my father’s from India. I think you’re not even talking about that kind of Indian, though. You’re talking about a Native American, like Marcus.” Marcus adds to the pile-on by saying, “Yeah, but I’m not a werewolf because I’m Native American. All right? It’s not an ethnic thing.”
This is such intelligently written and performed comedy, and it serves as an effective riposte to the kind of xenophobic symbolism modern-day scholars have pointed out in Stoker’s Dracula. In John Dittmer’s 2006 essay ‘Why Do Vampires Come From Eastern Europe?’ he wrote about how Count Dracula represented the liminal region of Eastern Europe, a kind of boundary between mainland Europe and Asia, specifically the Middle East.
“Dracula is repulsed and driven back to Eastern Europe by the representatives of the West: Van Helsing the Dutchman, Harker the Englishman and Morris the Texan. (…) To Van Helsing, and by extension the West, Dracula’s history is not a justification for admittance to the New Europe and therefore its delegitimisation is a necessary act. Instead, Dracula’s characteristics are the inescapable bonds that tie him to the Orient. Thus, Dracula’s claim is based on what he was, while Van Helsing’s exclusionary action is based on what Dracula is.”
Professor Dittmer’s essay does an excellent job in explaining stuff like this, but who has the time to read all that? What We Do in the Shadows—like many great works of art—does the work of several academic tomes, slipping under our guards to hit home with such arguments more effectively than any speech or polemic text. And it does so with verve and wit and humour, and periodic ‘Jim-glances’ at the camera. Watch it for the laughs, leave with an education on the complexities of contemporary identity.