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‘Wellington Paranormal’ Review: Supernatural Comedy Isn’t Just for ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Completists

“Reno 911” meets “The X-Files” in this goofy and worthy addition to the Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi universe.

Wellington Paranormal — Episode 1— Image Number: WPN101_0005.jpg — Pictured (L-R):  Minogue, Sergeant Maaka and O’Leary in the Wellington Paranormal office. Photo: Stan Alley/The CW —©2021 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

“Wellington Paranormal”

Stan Alley/The CW

There are plenty of other reasons to watch, but the opening credits for “Wellington Paranormal” distill the show’s appeal down to its essence. The credits introduce the three central figures in this survey of mysterious happenings in and around New Zealand’s capital. There’s a pair of police officers — O’Leary (Karen O’Leary) and her partner Minogue (Mike Minogue) — and the officer they both report to, Sergeant Maaka (Maaka Pohatu).

Behind these character introductions is a synthy, self-aware theme tune that wouldn’t be out of place in a “news of the weird” local cable access roundup, or even a basic cable reality show about cryptids disguised as an investigative documentary. Fake news clippings flash across the screen, one of them with a headline including the word “Vampirey.” It’s unrepentantly goofy, with just enough of that mockumentary veneer to keep the show nominally hemmed in to a recognizable format.

In that way, this series (now airing in the U.S. on The CW after debuting back in 2018 on TVNZ 2 in New Zealand) is just distinguishable enough from both the film and TV versions of “What We Do in the Shadows.” Like those, “Wellington Paranormal” is co-created by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, with the latter serving as a director and co-writer on multiple Season 1 episodes. It’s the same broad idea, looking at the local population’s inability to handle the presence of supernatural forces hiding in plain sight throughout their community. But “Wellington Paranormal” takes the opposite view, with a “camera crew” tracking a single unit of this police force (first introduced in the film) continually called in to respond to most abnormal occurrences in the area.

Each episode tackles a new Greatest Hit of the unexplained. O’Leary and Minogue stumble across crop circles, haunted houses, demon possessions, and the natural consequences of a full moon. No matter how open and shut a case is, they always manage to make things far more complicated than needed. “Wellington Paranormal” takes great delight in showing everyone what’s happening just beyond this pair’s peripheral vision. After these two have a chance to identify (see also: worsen) the situation, Sergeant Maaka arrives like a closer from the bullpen to help bring things home.

These investigations are the perfect arena for some deadpan farce. There are foot chases without yelling, transformations playing out in the background of on-camera interviews, and vital clues mistaken for odd coincidences. Minogue’s sweet-hearted oafishness and O’Leary’s mix of good intentions and lack of perception are the perfect recipe for things taking a wrong turn in the most matter-of-fact way possible. That also goes for developments out in the field and debriefs with Maaka back at the station. (One of Pohatu’s crowning achievements is delivering “I happen to know a lot about the walking dead…from watching ‘The Walking Dead’” in a way few others can.)

Wellington Paranormal — Episode 1— Image Number: WPN101_0005.jpg — Pictured (L-R): Minogue, Sergeant Maaka and O’Leary in the Wellington Paranormal office. Photo: Stan Alley/The CW —©2021 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

“Wellington Paranormal”

Stan Alley/New Zealand Documentary Board Ltd

The practical execution of much of “Wellington Paranormal” gives the show a good portion of its charm, too. None of these otherworldly creatures are massive CGI creations. Clement and fellow Season 1 director Jackie van Beek know exactly how to get a lot from a little. It turns out that all you need to generate a little silliness and eeriness at the same time is a few white contact lens, a little bit of wire work, and some well-executed puppetry. That goes for the non-horror stuff here, too — there’s one particular camera pan to a hole in the wall in one episode that would feel right at home in a Looney Tunes short, and an exquisitely executed clown-car gag late in the season that somehow gets better as it goes on.

“Wellington” is also a fascinating reframing of what a fictional show involving police can be. O’Leary and Minogue come across as decent people but terrible cops, an interesting counterbalance to a TV sub-genre that, whether comedy or drama, usually flips those adjectives. They carry tasers as weapons, but those prove to be wildly ineffective when deployed against spectral beings, or each other. Maaka’s morning precinct briefings play out like a newspaper’s corrections section.

“Wellington Paranormal” is plenty strong enough that it doesn’t really need any “What We Do in the Shadows” callbacks. But it works both on its own and as an entry in a slowly interwoven web. There’s some additional cross-pollination between this show and the movie that helped birth it, both in spirit and some specific characters who drop in unannounced.

Even though the show thrives on a certain level of incompetence from its main characters, the people bringing them to life are completely in control. There are some jokes, whether riffing on long-standing oddities in mythical creature lore or playfully dumb wordplay, that slowly make their way toward you like an ambling zombie. In the hands of this team, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a surprise or something you can spot them from a kilometer away — this merry band of uniformed goofs is going to make you laugh either way.

Grade: B+

“Wellington Paranormal” Season 1 airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on The CW. Episodes will also be available on HBO Max. 

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