Hunting vampires is a risky trade. This is one of two lessons taught by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s “What We Do in the Shadows,” the other being that life consigned to eternal night ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be; you can’t eat your favorite comfort foods without immediately puking up your guts, and the housemate candidate pool is low and comprised mostly of ancient and crotchety European assholes (who, of course, all appear to be their 40s). In Clement’s FX television adaptation of the movie, now entering its second season, the downsides of damnation are of less interest than the dangers of stalking and slaying bloodsuckers, especially when the person doing all of the stalking and slaying is a familiar.
Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), sweet, gentle, long-suffering Guillermo, the first season’s audience identification character, has a major problem: He’s the great grand-something of one Abraham Van Helsing, the dashing Dutch polymath and archnemesis of Dracula himself. Anyone else would meet the discovery of this lineage with a skeptical shrug, but Guillermo isn’t anyone else. He’s the human servant of Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), and by extension a butler to Nandor’s roomies, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), Laszlo Cravensworth (Matt Berry), and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), a quartet of vampires (well, three classic vampires and one energy vampire) dwelling under one roof.
That’s a good place to be for spineless milquetoasts yearning to be turned into vampires themselves, and for all of season one, that was Guillermo. Learning that he’s descended from the most legendary vampire hunter of all time has changed him, though, facilitated by years of humiliation and neglect from Nandor, a preening, dallying idiot who strings along his poor familiar with the promise of vampirism. In season two, “What We Do in the Shadows” refashions Guillermo as a fearless vampire killer, destroying his master’s would-be assassins without hesitation (and with Nandor none the wiser); the vampiric council is still pretty pissed off at Nandor, Laszlo, and Nadia for the accidental death of Baron Afanas (Doug Jones), despite their innocence in the affair, and so they keep on sending vampires to execute him—and Guillermo just keeps staking them in the heart.
Heavy! But “What We Do in the Shadows” unfolds with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Parody presides over plot, and humor over horror, though occasionally the show takes a pitstop to indulge in undead melancholy and black magic sadism. The post-credit scene of the premiere, “Resurrection,” is one of the most abidingly tragic images the series has constructed to date, a glimpse of devilry’s darkest side couched in a sweatshop staffed by ghouls. This brief scene is cruel on a level that’s less monstrous and more human; only a man would get it in his head to chain a team of shambling corpses in his cellar and force them to make cheap-shit tchotchkes in perpetuity. That’s terrifying.
Nadja, meanwhile, reconnects with her neighbor’s elderly mother, whom she visited and kinda sorta terrorized as a little girl, in “Brain Scramblies,” while Nandor gets a spectral visitation from his beloved war horse in “Ghosts”; they’re rare concrete reminders of what immortality really looks like, and how time passes these characters by as everyone else around them withers. “What We Do in the Shadows” doesn’t take itself seriously and isn’t chiefly concerned with vampirism’s existential implications: Think about it the same way as shows orbiting ultra-rich morons, where the presentation of wealth leads to explicit emphasis on the stupidity of the wealthy. How would centuries-old beings used to antiquated amenities and technologies adapt to the information age? Badly. Nandor, Laszlo, and Nadja might be sexy, undying, and capable of turning into bats, but at least the rest of us know how to check email.
“What We Do in the Shadows” uses genre satire as its structure and Guillermo’s vampire hunting adventures as its plot; while the rest of the gang deal with ghost infestations and curses, or attend a Superbowl party (which they quite mistakenly believe is a superb owl party, because again, they’re idiots), he infiltrates a team of scrappy amateur slayers (led by Craig Robinson and Abigail Savage), who he believes are targeting Nandor and the rest of the gang. The good news is that they’re inept and don’t know an actual damn thing about vampires beyond their well-documented strengths and weaknesses, but it’s indisputably bad news that they’re marking Staten Island’s vampires for death—and this is on top of the assassins, and Guillermo’s own gathering resentment toward Nandor.
Not that Guillén hurt for material in season one, but he’s on screen more often in season two, or perhaps his screen time simply has more weight. “What We Do in the Shadows” treated him at first like the schlemiel to Nandor’s schmuck; Nandor would spill his soup, and the soup would inevitably end up splashing Guillermo’s lap. Here, he’s a disgruntled employee, devoted to a fault, shown little to no appreciation for the lengths he goes to do his job admirably, and totally fed up. Nandor comes to his aid in “Resurrection” when Topher (Haley Joel Osment), Nadja and Laszlo’s familiar, brought back to zombified life after his accidental death, tries to murder him; for one fleeting moment, Guillermo’s fidelity is restored, until Nandor does what Nandor does and ruins the whole thing with casual ambivalence.
Guillén plays the back and forth from follower to traitor-in-waiting beautifully: He’s a loyal puppy one minute, a spurned lover the next, and which side he ultimately lands on remains to be seen. Maybe Guillén’s performance will forever straddle these two points, or maybe by the time “What We Do in the Shadows” wraps up the season, he’ll embrace his inner Van Helsing. More likely the former than the latter, because without Guillermo there’d be no show, but in the meantime, watching him figure out who he wants to be is a wry hoot. [B+]