“What We Do in the Shadows” wasn’t begging for a television adaptation. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s goofy mockumentary about dopey vampire roommates stuffed into a Victorian manor crammed a very enjoyable one-joke conceit into 85 minutes. Well, it turns out some jokes deserve retelling many times over. The first season of FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows” made a wonderful case for the prospects of new hijinks, revising its characters, transplanting the setting from the Wellington suburbs to Staten Island, and just letting that inherent silliness run its course. The idea for a gothic horror makeover of “The Office” is funny enough, but showrunner Clement clearly didn’t take that appeal for granted. With Season 2, “Shadows” has settled into its absurdist groove while taking it in a refreshing new direction, by revealing that a human is the real start of the show.
That’s Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), the lovable familiar and main scene-stealer in Season 1. The portly aide to loony ex-conquistador Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Guillermo spent much of the season hoping his ignorant master would reward his servant with eternal life, only to discover in time for the finale that he’s a descendant of vampire hunter Van Helsing, and might possess the same killer instincts. As the Costello to Nandor’s Abbott — and sometimes the Pinky to his Brain — Guillén could have been reduced to a simple punchline, but he’s instead the most obvious access point for mortal viewers. There’s a lot of potential to upend the motives of a guy who was inspired by Latin vampire representation after seeing Antonio Banderas in “Interview With the Vampire.” Season 2 finds it.
By the first episode, Guillermo’s still struggling to hide his newfound talent from his overlords, covertly dispensing of various undead assassins from the vampire council creeping into the house after its residents accidentally killed their leader last season. Guillermo’s quite handy with a stake, and his regular wide-eyed peeks at the camera as he keeps rediscovering his talent provides a promising start for positioning this season around his journey.
Of course, Guillermo can’t dominate the whole show. Nandor continues to stumble through some ridiculous circumstances, none more endearing than when he struggles to access his email (“What is ‘arise’ again? Control-alt-seven?”). Bisexual raconteur Laszlo (Matt Berry) remains a fountain of overconfidence, which this time leads to an accidental brainwashing and the suggestion of a rather grotesque erotic encounter with the afterlife. His wife, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou, whose eye-rolling cynicism and vulgar asides provide a constant highlight) continues to deepen her feminine prowess, with a haunted doll and an awkward reunion with her elderly neighbor, whom Nadja used torture as a child. And let’s not forget cheery-faced Colin (Mark Proksch), the energy vampire who still just hangs around and bores people until no end (“I’m not really sure what my deal is,” he shrugs this season, and while the show still can’t find much to do with him, that’s sort of the point).
But the shrewd casting extends well beyond the series regulars, and this time, the cameos offer real substance. While nothing in the initial string of episodes tops last season’s vampire council that included Tilda Swinton, Evan Rachel Wood, and Blade himself, it’s off to a decent start. You can’t go wrong with Benedict Wong as a two-bit necromancer and Haley Joel Osment as Nadja and Laszlo’s obnoxious, privileged new familiar who annoys Guillermo to no end. Craig Robinson is in top form as the macho leader of an underground vampire team in which Guillermo becomes an unwitting new entrant. While it’s fun to watch these actors mess around, there’s greater satisfaction in finding out how they serve the larger story.
Still, “Shadows” wouldn’t be “Shadows” without the dopey riffs on horror-fantasy that just keep growing wilder. The first few episodes of Season 2 cram enough kooky gags to make the “Addams Family” franchise look tame. It’s not enough for the vampires to contend with a sudden onslaught of ghosts, which they refuse to believe in (Guillermo: “That’s where we draw the line?); there’s also a cursed email (“the sender says ‘mailer demon!”), the return of a certain decapitated lover, and a sexual twist on ectoplasm that will force you to rethink the sloppy stuff of “Ghostbusters” fame. Above all else, the show excels at exploring what it means to live forever and just grow bored of it. Jim Jarmusch found poetic beauty in that same observation with his subtle masterpiece “Only Lovers Left Alive,” but “Shadows” focuses less on malaise than a kind of jocular apathy. (When Nadja loses an object to some mortals in the neighborhood, she sighs, “I’ll just get it back when they die.”)
The joy of the new season comes from the way it shows real narrative progress. By end of Episode 4, Guillermo steps into full-on hero mode with a chaotic onslaught of slapstick mayhem that leaves no doubt about his true destiny. Come for the best monster-on-human shaky-cam action since “REC,” stay for a final “fuck you” moment for the ages. As the camera crew careens through a haunted house, bodies pile up and glass shatters, and it really does seem as though the show’s world-building has only gotten started.
Which is not to say that it’s a perfect ride. The episodic nature of the storytelling stumbles on a few too many coincidences, gags that overstay their welcome, and there is the occasional sense that you’re watching slight variations on bits done to death much earlier in the show. More often than not, however, “Shadows” crystallizes its black comic formula, shakes it around, and tries again. It’s hard to tell how long this one-trick pony will still have legs, but Season 2 proves that there’s a long way to go before the break of dawn.
“What We Do in the Shadows” Season 2 premieres Wednesday, April 15 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.