Jemaine Clement is pretty recognizable from Flight of the Conchords (the band or the series, take your pick). But he's embarking on this new chapter without musical partner Bret McKenzie, co-writing and co-directing a spotty mockumentary about vampires who share a flat in New Zealand. Clement is a very funny guy, but you may need to be pretty generous with this one, which, outside of its concept, labors to land clean punches.
"What We Do in the Shadows" follows three vampires in Wellington, New Zealand, all of whom happen to be flatmates. We first meet Viago (Taika Waititi, the other half of the writing/directing duo), who was an 18th century dandy and now more or less tries to keep the other vampires up on their household chores. Vladislav (Clement) used to be an incredibly powerful vampire, able to hypnotize victims with little more than a glance, but he's a shell of his former self now, having been defeated by his rival (known only as "The Beast").
Then there's Deacon (Jonathan Burgh), who is fairly new to vampirism, having been turned during World War II. Some vampires have "familiars," mortals who are their connection to the outside world, and Deacon has Jackie (Jackie van Bleek). She wants nothing more than to be a vampire herself, but instead of biting her and fulfilling her wish, Deacon just makes her do the laundry and stuff.
You can kind of see how far the tentacles of this setup will reach. The only question is will it be funny enough to sustain it? The answer is an unclear no, or at best, a soft yes. There are definitely things about "What We Do in the Shadows" that are clever. The rival clan of werewolves, for instance, often remind themselves not to lower themselves to using profanity in conflicts with the vampires. "We're werewolves," goes the mantra, "not swear-wolves." It would be great if the lycan clan had a set of rules like that, a new one popping up whenever they do, but they just fall back on that one a few times ... and it's only funny once.
A lot of the dry humor that permeates the Conchords stuff is here, and that works well, out of place as it would be among centuries-old vampires. But as a story, it really lags. The documentary crew is following the house of vampires in the months leading up to a big annual gathering; we're told there are about 80 bloodsuckers in the Wellington area, and this event is the be-all end-all. Except it's more like a prom, with people awkwardly standing around barely listening to the party's music. There are also a couple human-to-vampire upgrades and even a human the vampires think is too cool the way he is, so none of them can find the courage to bite him.
"What We Do in the Shadows" is largely like that all the way through—little moments that provide atmosphere for a story that's not genuinely being told. What you get instead are subplots ideas for a series that could cover this exact same ground and be really funny. Given 90 minutes or so, there's not a lot of time to spread the coverage around, so each little idiosyncratic beat gets just a few minutes. Over 13 episodes, Clement and Waititi could probably find all sorts of strange tangents to explore, but here, all the ideas have to share the spotlight, meaning none of them has the spotlight. There are some high spots to be found, but not enough to truly recommend this one.