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How What We Do in the Shadows Became Cable's Queerest Comedy

Shadows

In the pilot episode of What We Do in the Shadows — an FX comedy that centers on a vampire clan living in 21st-century Staten Island — the characters discuss the arrival of a vampiric royal named Baron Afanas (Doug Jones) to their shared home.

“A few hundred years ago, we enjoyed a very intense, very long sexual affair. It was very wild, lots of acrobatic stuff,” Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) confides to a (faux) documentary crew chronicling the lives of the immortal nightcrawlers.

“Awhile back, the baron and I enjoyed a very intense sex affair. Very animalistic. Acrobatic stuff, you might say,” echoes her husband, Laszlo (Matt Berry), in his own confessional.

With that one joke, the team behind What We Do in the Shadows committed to taking a view of the world that was queer-inclusive. “I think we all enjoyed how into it [Laszlo] was,” Jemaine Clement, co-creator and co-showrunner of the series, told The Advocate with a smile during a recent visit to the Toronto set.

Nadja and Laszlo
Pictured: Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) and Laszlo (Matt Berry)

Around Clement, the rooms of the spooky mansion where the vampires reside lay spread out in a studio space, a splay of coffins, taxidermy, vintage furniture, oil paintings, and modern camera equipment. Moments beforehand, Demetriou dangled in a harness nearby, the ceiling of the salle removed to accommodate the filming of a flight and possibly fight scene. (Vampires in this world can fly, and many of their melees are aerial.) Laszlo, grabbing her hem, tried to restrain her.

Objectively, Laszlo is the most flamboyant of the characters on Shadows. His outfits, including a memorable cursed hat made from witch skin, have a flair for the dramatic. He also boasts an impressive array of credits in pornography, gay and straight, stretching back to the silent film era.

However, Laszlo is far from alone in queer attraction, or being dramatic, for that matter. His wife, Nadja — their relationship could be described as open, but complicated — has a reincarnated lover, Gregor (Jake McDorman), who in past lives wooed her as a knight, a washerwoman, and a horse. Gregor is frequently beheaded due to Laszlo’s jealousy. Last season, Nadja converted a young female college student, Jenna (Beanie Feldstein), into a vampire through a process that dances between mentorship and seduction.

Additionally, Nandor (Kayvan Novak) is implicated in a past relationship with George Washington when, during a citizenship test, he identifies him as “America’s first gay president.” And Nandor’s human familiar, Guillermo (queer actor Harvey Guillén), is infatuated with his master, so much so that he has no objection to living in an actual closet in the mansion to be at his beck and call.

And BDSM culture is baked into Shadows. In addition to the sadomasochistic nature of the vampire-familiar relationship, an entire episode, “The Orgy,” is devoted to the household planning a queer “carnival of delights” that could sub as an after-party for the Folsom Street Fair. Guests dressed in leather straps and other kink apparel hunger for a fresh virgin, regardless of gender. Guillermo is ordered to coat the furniture as protection against blood and other fluids.

Jenna and Nadja
Pictured: Jenna (Beanie Feldstein) and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou)

In fact, when GLAAD, an LGBTQ media organization, contacted FX to ascertain how many of the characters on Shadows could be identified as LGBTQ for its annual Where We Are on TV report, it received an unequivocal response from Paul Simms, an executive producer, co-showrunner, and writer on the series.

“All of them. All of our characters are completely pansexual,” Simms confirmed. He added with pride, “So we get a 100 percent from GLAAD on the survey. Where’s our award?”

Stefani Robinson, a co-executive producer and writer, explained that queerness is inherent to the show’s DNA, to the point of being unremarkable among the characters when it manifests as either an expression of attraction or a tale of an old flame. “I think it’s been very natural and normal the whole show,” she said. “Characters have been very open and attracted to everything.”

One of the offered reasons for this lack of stigma — related to LGBTQ people or otherwise — is the sheer amount of mileage the centuries-old characters have spent on earth, which has blessed them with a supernatural tolerance.

“Vampires are so accepting. They’ve seen everything,” Simms said. “I remember, we were having one conversation early on, and I was saying, would vampires be [prejudiced]? Laszlo’s very old-fashioned — you can imagine him not liking Italians or something. And then we decided, no. They’ve just lived so much time that everyone seems [the same]. And also, to them, it’s vampires and then all the humans. And who cares what kind of humans they are?”

Berry, who gives life (or undeath) to Laszlo, sees the absence of antigay judgment among vampires as “a really positive thing” to bring to TV. “The fact that somebody comes in and we all fancy them, it just is accepted,” he said. “No one turns on anyone else about anything like that. We might have a go at someone for being boring, but that’s a different thing.”

It’s a philosophy that also governs the team at Shadows, to the degree that it was a “surprise” to Clement that the queerness of the show’s characters sparked such a positive response from LGBTQ fans.

“I’m from a place where it’s a little more liberal in a way, in New Zealand, so it’s not as weird to me,” Clement said, adding, “I was not expecting people to identify with bisexual characters or relate to them in that way and not having felt represented. … But I’m really happy about it.”

While queer sex is often addressed explicitly on the show, Shadows is also rooted by a relationship of “unspoken love” between Nandor and Guillermo, which Guillén compared to Mr. Burns and Smithers in a homoerotic and unrequited relationship from The Simpsons.

Nandor and Guillermo
Pictured: Nandor (Kayvan Novak) and Guillermo (Harvey Guillén)

Guillermo is also a closeted character, confirmed Guillén, in the sense that he now has to hide his newfound knowledge that he is a descendant of the famous vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. This secret, “a lot of weight to carry,” could destroy his relationship with Nandor or change it in fundamental ways.

“I've always longed for the protection from this tall Adonis vampire and wanting to be a part of his world,” Guillén said in the view of Guillermo. “And now here I am with such power in my own hands. The opening of a blind or opening the door with flowers kills [vampires]. You forget how powerful we are as just humans.”

(Related: "Harvey Guillén Brings Killer Visibility to What We Do in the Shadows")

Will Nandor and Guillermo consummate their love? Will the Biannual Vampire Orgy not burst into flames this year? Without giving spoilers, Simms confirmed vampiric “gay activity” will occur at least twice in season 2.

Catch the premiere Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX. Watch the trailer below.

Tags: television

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