There’s nothing funnier than being undead. At least that’s what Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet and FX’s What We Do In The Shadows want us to believe. Both draw from the folklore of the monsters at their core while amplifying their narratives with humor.
The form of comedy is different for both but they confirm the idea that TV is branching away from the usually grim portrayal of the subject matter. Besides indulging fans of the genre, they have the ability to pull in a wider audience — one that doesn’t care for gore or violence but still gets to participate in the fantasy of it — by adding comedy to the mix.
Movies have captured the hilarity in zombie and vampire stories for a while now. It’s easy for a Shaun of the Dead or a Warm Bodies to start and finish the plot in two hours. The small screen (and the hope of multiple seasons) requires a longer structure.
It’s not like comedy doesn’t exist in the universe of TV’s zombie and vampire portrayals in some form. They’re mostly dramedies like Ash vs. Evil Dead, Being Human, and iZombie.
Most of the fandom-heavy supernatural shows are dramas and there’s no dearth of them. The Walking Dead is renewed for Season 10 with it’s spin-off reaching a Season 5. Netflix itself has tapped into this market with the dark, fantastic Korean-origin Kingdom and a spin-off of SyFy’s Z Nation titled Black Summer.
But with Santa Clarita Diet and What We Do In The Shadows, we’re seeing a new wave. They’re wholly dedicated to examining beloved tropes through the lens of absurdity and satire. And they’re doing it well.
Santa Clarita Diet, a “zom-com” starring Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant, already has two ridiculously funny seasons. Through undead realtor Sheila Hammond, it embraces the genre’s tropes (Insatiable craving for organs! Super strength!) and then puts its own spin on it.
Santa Clarita Diet milks the ironies of Sheila living a suburban life with mortal husband Joel and daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) for all its slapstick worth. Through a myriad of amusing characters, it constructs a complex zombie lore involving clams, bile, and Serbian knights among other things.
Season 3 expands on all of this in full form. Barrymore and Olyphant settle into their roles, bringing even more depth to Joel and Sheila. Olyphant, especially, can give a masterclass in reactionary humor. He’s akin to us — the viewer — as he processes the ton of zombie nonsense going on around him.
As for Sheila aka the undead, carefree superhero, she forges a name for herself in the list of monsters who are actually anything but. Her character supports the thesis that the undead can certainly be funny and not terrifying, unless you’re a misogynist or a Nazi and can turn into a meal for her.
In some ways, her journey reminds me of The CW’s iZombie protagonist Liv Moore (Rose McIver), who unexpectedly becomes undead. Instead of coasting through life alone, she wants to do some greater good. She uses her medical examiner skills to achieve this goal and solve crimes. It sounds like a bizarre plot, I know, but tell me what zombie-related entertainment isn’t bizarre.
iZombie, with a fifth and final season bowing out in May, is dramatic and suspenseful in a very The CW manner but fits in doses of humor seamlessly. This is through Liv uncontrollably transforming her personality into the dead person whose brains she consumes. One episode she’s a kleptomaniac, the other she’s a grumpy old man. It’s great!
And then there are vampires.
The fanged undead are an almost constant pop culture phenomenon. Look no further than iconic shows over the years like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries, which spun out two new shows. All three are compelling, long-running series that relied on drama to make their central characters interesting. The new FX comedy What We Do In The Shadows banks on the ineptitude of its vampires to make them funny.
Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement directed, wrote, and starred in the 2014 zany film of the same name. Now, they’re adapting it for the small screen with astounding execution.
The show is about three centuries-old lazy vampires — married couple Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) and Laszlo (Matt Berry), and yesteryear knight Nandor (Kayvan Novak) — who embark on a mission to conquer Staten Island (and by proxy the new world), a spectacular concept in itself, when confronted by an old leader.
The format is an Office-style mockumentary, producing exactly the type of dry humor it’s supposed to.
Nadja, Laszlo, Nandor aren’t facing existential dread. They’re not broody or sparkly, although the latter does try to sprinkle glitter on himself to look more like Edward Cullen while at the grocery store.
What We Do In The Shadows manages to make these bloodthirsty, legendary vampires seem weirdly relatable. It places them in mundane situations of the modern era. All they want to do is have fun, nourish themselves with (human blood as) food, and stay indoors during the day. I get it. They even get a human familiar to be at their beck and call every second of the day.
In all their glory, Santa Clarita Diet and What We Do In The Shadows promise wholesome entertainment despite being supernaturally-inclined and with two very different premises.
The former has a sunnier disposition, tackles family dynamics, and remains grounded despite an unconventional plot. The latter is unapologetically offbeat in every way — most scenes take place in the dark. What’s common, however, is that they explore innovative themes of a known genre. They’ve uplifted the historic undead from being tragic to being tragically funny.
Season 1 of What We Do In The Shadows premieres on FX on March 27. Season 3 of Santa Clarita Diet drops on March 29 in its entirety.