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Why 'What We Do in the Shadows' deserved its Emmy nominations

FX's What We Do in the Shadows
FX's What We Do in the Shadows (Image credit: FX)

Every year, the Emmy nominations are announced and every year there are endless outcries over the omissions, the snubs, and the baffling inclusions. It’s as much a tradition as the weepy speeches and red-carpet analyses. The job of the Television Academy has gotten all the more impossible in the age of Peak TV, a world where there are literally thousands of episodes a year to watch and one where nobody, not even professional critics or industry fellows, can possibly keep up with each and every one of them. There will be surprises along the way but also a lot of deeply predictable choices. The Emmys are known to play it safe, sticking to what they know and coming to the bright new series later in their runs, often long past their prime. As with all awards bodies in pop culture, it’s a case of taste, marketing, and visibility over pure merit. That’s why it’s such a delight when the Emmys go outside of their box and make those picks that nobody saw coming.

An excellent example of that from this year is the Best Comedy nomination for FX’s What We Do in the Shadows. While critics love the series, based on the movie by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, few people predicted it showing up on the Emmy ballot. It’s a vampire comedy with a non-starry cast that is proudly niche and rejects many of the expected conventions of the genre. Overall, it just seemed a tad too cool for the Emmys, but they nominated it anyway, and that’s true cause for celebration. They even gave it no fewer than three nominations for its writing, each one a deserving choice. Still, it’s hard to overlook how many other aspects of the series were overlooked by the Academy: The wonderful production design, which mixes gothic camp with the mundanities of Staten Island; the spot-on direction from people like Clement, Liza Johnson, and Yana Gorskaya; and, of course, the acting.

Kayvan Novak, Harvey Guillén, and Matt Berry in FX's What We Do in the Shadows (Credit: FX)

Kayvan Novak, Harvey Guillén, and Matt Berry in FX's What We Do in the Shadows (Credit: FX) (Image credit: FX)

A classic fish-out-of-water tale, the series feels oddly at home amid the over-saturated sitcom genre. It utilizes all the familiar tropes of this field – the annoying neighbors, the petty squabbles over housework, office troubles, pleasing the boss – while combining them with the world of horror’s most iconic monsters. That mixture of the speculative with the mundane proves to be a striking breeding ground for jokes and a growing array of characters who bring the world to life. The entire affair is silly but never stupid, absurd but in a way that never sneers at its own concept. There’s no winking or eye-rolling over how daft it is for vampires to exist and to be so evidently ridiculous in modern-day America. They just are and everyone goes along with it.

By all rights, this show should be a one-tricky-pony, a one-joke concept with no steam to pull off one season of television, let alone two. Yet the end result is so richly developed and comfortable in its own skin that the potential for further exploration of this world feels limitless. In many ways, it may actually be better than the admittedly brilliant film it’s based on.

What We Do in the Shadows has one of the strongest comedic ensembles on television right now, a veritable murderer’s row of acting talent who are also pulling off one of the toughest jobs in small-screen comedy. How do you take a concept like a vampire flatshare comedy seriously enough to allow audience investment while milking it for every ounce of funny, all while trying to avoid the trite clichés of the genre? It’s a tightrope walk of immense skill and one that’s way too easy to write off as no big deal. Even some of the sitcom greats of TV comedy couldn’t pull off what the cast of What We Do in the Shadows does every episode.

Where do we even start with this cast? How about Matt Berry as Laszlo Cravensworth, an English nobleman vampire who still lives as if he is the master of an almighty domain rather than a crumbling Staten Island house. As played by Matt Berry, Laszlo is just self-aware enough to avoid being wholly deluded, but his archaic ways keep him tethered to the past. Berry is a beloved comedic regular in the U.K. thanks to series like Toast of London and Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, and he chews into the role of Laszlo with real relish. His pronunciation of basic words would put Moira Rose and Connie the Hormone Monster to shame. Few things elicited as much joy on TV from the past year as much as hearing Laszlo call the Super Bowl the “superb owl.”

Berry is joined in the house-share by Natasia Demetriou as Nadja, Kayvan Novak as Nandor, and Mark Proksch as Colin Robinson, who is seemingly always refered to by his full name, which somehow sounds far sillier than Nandor the Relentless or Lazslo Cravensworth. Demetriou manages to be a slinky vamp (all puns intended) who’s equal parts alluring and entirely baffling. Her relationship with her husband Laszlo is one of love, irritation, and the unique kind of camaraderie that can only come from centuries of companionship and exhaustion with one another. Novak is the nitpicky self-styled leader of the house, a job he fails at in almost every way, but he’s just sensible enough in comparison to his friends to keep a hold on the job. There are more silly accents on display here than in a Monty Python sketch but it says something to the talents of this impeccable trio that their committed hamminess never feels overdone.

Proksch is especially hilarious as the only vaguely “normal” vampire, more an incubus of sorts who feeds on energy rather than blood, which means he spends a lot of time draining people of their will to live by being the most tedious and pitiful person to be around. He brings a smidge of smarm to his deadpan performance, showing the glee behind his strange lot in life. The way he is part of the group but only vaguely tolerated by everyone only adds to his strain of awkwardness.

Perhaps the show’s true star is Harvey Guillén as Guillermo De la Cruz, Nandor's beleaguered human familiar. Guillermo dreams of becoming a vampire and allows himself to be strung along and manipulated by his master in the hopes that one day he can become like his hero, Antonio Banderas in Interview with the Vampire. Late in the first season, he discovers that he is a descendant of Van Helsing and is unnervingly good at killing vampires, accidentally or otherwise. Throughout season two, the audience watches as poor Guillermo is trodden on one too many times and slowly accepts his hunter fate. Guillén has wonderfully earnest energy that anchors the show even at its silliest. You entirely understand why this character wants to be a vampire, even though it’s obvious that it wouldn’t be worth all the hassle and exploitation by these undead buffoons. You root for him, even though the fulfillment of his destiny would result in the massacre of all our favorite vampires.

On top of the main cast, the series is chock full of an enviable assortment of guest actors. Nick Kroll, perhaps the greatest modern-day comedic dirtbag who isn't named Jason Mantzoukas, brings his patented brand of weird douche hilarity to the part of Simon the Devious, complete with a Lost Boys-style mullet. Haley Joel Osment drops in on season two to play the new familiar in town who ends up partly dead. The legendary Mark Hamill plays the beautifully named Jim the Vampire as a cross between Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood's movies.

Speculative genres in television aren’t given the same credence with awards bodies as realistic fare, and even the exceptions like Game of Thrones feel decidedly more grounded than the unashamed oddities of What We Do in the Shadows. This is commonplace across pop culture as a whole and it’s a shame because we’re excluding the work of so many great creatives in the name of an increasingly outdated commitment to “realism.” Let’s hope that the Best Comedy Emmy nomination for What We Do in the Shadows signals that the Television Academy is open to stranger things and that its cast will one day get the credit they sorely deserve.