Witnessing the trial of a high-ranking Nazi, Hannah Arendt was struck by the contrast “between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.”
Something similar is playing out right now on Hulu, in a brilliant comedy series called “What We Do In The Shadows.” Based on the 2014 film by New Zealander Jemaine Clement and filmed in the mockumentary style of “The Office,” the series follows four vampires sharing a house in modern-day Staten Island. Three are immigrants with strong accents and wistful memories of the Old Country: Nandor (Persia), Lazlo (England), and Lazlo’s wife Nadja (Romania). The fourth, Colin, a smarmy office worker shunned by the others, is pure American.
The vampires are centuries old and spend their days sleeping in coffins. They feast on the blood of the living, stalking their unsuspecting victims and plunging sharp teeth into their necks. They are invisible to mirrors and can change into animals at will, most often bats. Some, like Nandor, have a human “familiar” devoted to their caretaking — or, as Nandor’s familiar Guillermo puts it, “a best friend who is also a slave.”
The inexhaustible comic premise of “What We Do In The Shadows” is that the gothic high drama of vampirism is at odds with banal, enervating modern life. The vampires abstain from killing their nosey neighbor because he brings their trash cans in from the curb. Nadja’s reincarnated lover Gregor, with whom she’s carried on a passionate affair over the eons spanning his many human lives, is now a parking garage attendant, called — to Nadja’s horror — “Jeff.”
“Oh, Gregor, you are being so boring right now!” she shrieks in agony on their Staten Island date.
In fact, all the vampires (except Colin, whose unflappable smugness creeps the others out) are bored. Dressed like eighteenth-century aristocrats, they mooch around town at loose ends, perplexed that being a deathless creature of the night involves so much down time, an infinity of petty irritations.
Nandor, the closest thing the group has to an alpha male, was once a bloodthirsty conqueror who turned the Euphrates red with blood. “I was very ferocious soldier in the Ottoman empire,” he explains to the documentary crew, “which meant a lot of killing. I was relentless. They would call me Nandor the Relentless . . . because I’d just never relent.”
This legendary sadist is now reduced to passive-aggressive jabs at Guillermo, a dumpy hanger-on who gets on Nandor’s nerves. “Guillermo is my familiar, but sometimes he’s a little too familiar, know what I mean? I mean, he’s always just there,” Nandor grouses to the crew.
Sex fiend Lazlo is now a middle-aged guy fussing over his lawn: an obscene topiary in which he’s working through a few Oedipal issues. Nadja, a slightly past-her-prime succubus who led countless men to their doom, is now stuck with three annoying male housemates for eternity. Are they having fun yet?
The show spoofs the sexy glam-pires we’ve seen in American pop culture for decades, starting with Interview With The Vampire (1994), featuring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. From 2008 to 2012, the five-part Twilight saga gave us the vampire-as-high-school-heartthrob, a pale emo youth who virtuously abstained from human blood. In a 2010 essay in Dappled Things, Eleanor Bourg Donlon criticized such depictions as “both too serious and yet not serious enough . . . desperate to invest the metaphysically denuded world with some sort of meaning” absent the religious understanding of good and evil that undergirded the vampire legend for centuries.
In today’s revenant-lite genre, “God is removed from the equation entirely — thereby sucking the very life out of the story,” Donlon observes. “Consequently, vampyres are left as vaguely trendy (cf. leather pants, dark make-up, and brooding facial expressions) but conflicted outsiders . . . reduced to angst and anemia.”
Playing it for laughs, “What We Do In The Shadows” makes the same point. In a flat, technocratic world, a desert of meaninglessness with curbside garbage pickup, being a vampire is absurd. In the Old World, it all made sense, but now the joke’s on them: Present-day Staten Island is more godless than they are. Thus, the vampires are doubly damned: first, by the God whom they dramatically rejected by drinking human blood; second, by a society that doesn’t believe in God, Satan, or anything, really, and is more excruciatingly vapid than anything they have ever experienced.
Vaguely disoriented, the fang gang remains faithfully anti-religious. Spitballing municipal ordinances they’d like to see, they propose rules like “all local churches to destroy their crucifixes,” a TV comedy called “Priests Falling Over,” mandatory harpsichord concerts, and nun-free zones marked with signs reading “No Nuns — None.” When Nandor painfully forces himself to say “God” in one episode, flames shoot from his mouth.
If, as Chesterton said, “the test of a good religion is whether you can joke about it,” Catholics can really sink their teeth into “What We Do In The Shadows.” Its black-clad misfits are oddly relatable — moreso than, say, the characters on “Friends” — since Catholics are a tad Old-World-gothic themselves. Ever since Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula (the product of meticulous research into folklore, theology, and history), vampire stories have been entwined with Church doctrine and practices. When sitcom characters treat rosaries and holy water as powerful (by shunning them), it’s gratifying to see someone on TV speaking our language.
Like the vampires, modern Catholics struggle to maintain their grasp on metaphysical realities in the dumbed-down dullscape of 21st century life. Our gory, imaginative religion with a flair for the dramatic is hard to reconcile with the inanity and boredom of, say, attending a city council meeting on zoning. When the vampires turn into bats and fly away from such things, we envy them.
Unlike the vampires, however, Catholics have known for thousands of years that worldliness is a downer, that hedonism becomes a bore, and that sinning ad nauseum means you’re already in hell. Rather than slog through living death, we have the option of throwing the whole thing over, choosing – as 1 Corinthians puts it — “a more excellent way.”
“What We Do In The Shadows” will not be to every Catholic’s taste. Its overall mood is irreverent and profane. Like Lena Dunham’s erstwhile black comedy “Girls,” the only moral instruction it offers is by negative example. You can’t watch it around the kids, unless you want to try to explain terms like “vampire orgy.”
Yet, to a certain type of viewer, the show is subversively Catholic: a series of laugh-out-loud gags about likeable characters who, unfortunately, have chosen eternal damnation as their lot. The group’s leader may be called Nandor the Relentless, but it is the existential gloom in which the vampires not-live and move and have their being that is relentless. It does not relent.
Hilariously, pitifully, wherever they go, there they are.