clock menu more-arrow no yes
Wellington Paranormal cops Minoque and O’Leary take a nighttime selfie with an alien named “Extraterrestrial Flora” Photo: Stan Alley/New Zealand Documentary Board

Filed under:

What We Do In The Shadows’ first TV spinoff takes The X-Files to its funniest extreme

The movie’s clueless cops get a starring role in Wellington Paranormal

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s 2014 mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was a cult hit, with its portrayal of the surprisingly mundane lives of a group of vampire roommates struggling to cope with the modern world and each other. Their film spawned a 2019 FX show of the same name, which replicated the structure, but moved the action from New Zealand to New York. But that well-received show was actually the second series based on the film, following the 2018 premiere of Wellington Paranormal in New Zealand.

Created and produced by Waititi and Clement, the series is now airing in America for the first time, coming to the CW on July 11. Effectively a series-length comedy version of the “X-Cops” episode of The X-Files, the show follows a special unit of New Zealand’s police force tasked with investigating supernatural activity in the capital city. “We’re kind of like Mulder and Scully,” Officer Minogue (Mike Minogue) says in the pilot, gesturing to his partner Officer O’Leary (Karen O’Leary). “She’s like Scully because she’s analytical, she’s got the brains, and I’m a man with brown hair.”

Mulder and Scully often failed to find answers because they were confronting deep conspiracies, but Minogue and O’Leary fail in their cases because they’re ludicrously oblivious and incompetent. In What We Do in the Shadows, the duo were hypnotized into ignoring anything strange in the vampire-occupied house, and they blamed a lost dog for a werewolf attack. They’re just as ineffectual in Wellington Paranormal, often making situations worse and rarely providing any significant assistance to the victims or community.

Wellington Paranormal is far less character-driven than either version of What We Do in the Shadows, where the vampires are lovable losers with bizarre backstories and quirks. Aside from O’Leary being slightly more competent, both officers are pretty bland protagonists, with dry delivery punctuated by moments of panic as they get in over their heads. Their supervisor, Sergeant Ruawai Maaka (Maaka Pohatu) is equally inept, but significantly more endearing in his earnest obsession with the paranormal, which he’s chronicled in a secret office papered with clippings about were-pigs and space zombies. Minogue and O’Leary were chosen for his paranormal task force not because of their special skills, but because they’re the first people he could convince to take interest in his pet project.

Because of the deadpan performances and flat characters, the quality of the episodes varies wildly, depending on the monster of the week. The first two episodes of the six-episode first season are the weakest, as the officers deal with well-trod genre procedural territory by confronting demons and aliens. But the show hits its stride by episode 3, as the cops face threats that are both more absurd and more tightly linked to the film — they encounter a newly bitten werewolf, and face Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macauer), the obnoxious young vampire from What We Do In the Shadows.

The brushes with these creatures capture much of the same humor as What We Do In the Shadows by marrying the mundane and supernatural. Nick explains he loves drinking from blood bags because you can stick a straw in them like a juice box. Before figuring out they have a werewolf problem, the cops are persuaded that a report of a “dog wearing jeans” could have been a dressed-up pet. The show constantly delivers absurd scenarios, often calling on the same meta humor of What We Do in the Shadows to directly reference what it owes to shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Walking Dead. O’Leary confronts all manners of strangeness with a deadpan professionalism that evokes Scully’s attempt to rationalize every unexplained phenomenon, but Minogue is a cowardly fool who can be duped by an obviously fraudulent medium. Maaka may be a self-professed supernatural expert, but he still has to look up instructions for performing an exorcism on his phone.

A demon girl (Erika Camacho) smiles menacingly at the camera as her hair blows back in Wellington Paranormal Photo: Stan Alley/New Zealand Documentary Board

The show has a tiny budget, so its versions of supernatural creatures don’t look particularly impressive. But that doesn’t really matter when the main reason you have an actor dressed in Nosferatu makeup is to show him narcing on Nick for robbing a blood bank: “It’s fine to just take the blood from a human person, but stealing from a hospital, no way. They need that for emergencies.” Vampire flight looks ridiculously cheesy on the show, but that just adds to the effect of making them seem silly rather than scary.

The CW’s Arrowverse has been changing its portrayal of the police following America’s increased awareness on police brutality, which kicked off with the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent summer of protests. Characters who once worked for law enforcement or had close ties to those organizations are going their own way or confronting institutional problems. The release of Wellington Paranormal actually fits in surprisingly well with that new focus by effectively serving as reverse copaganda.

It certainly helps that the New Zealand police officers are much less threatening than their U.S. equivalents. They’re only armed with tasers, which they turn on each other far more than they hit anyone else. But beyond the Keystone Cops-style gags, the show’s writers relentlessly mock the effectiveness of policing.

In one meeting, Maaka commends his officers on a job well done for answering a call about a baby seen floating alone in the ocean, which turned out to be a lost towel. Then he points out that they’re still sitting on 13 unsolved murders. In another, Officer Minogue spills the contents of a blood bag recovered from a vampire all over himself, then feels the need to shout at everyone around him that he didn’t brutalize anyone. The episode “Zombie Cops” channels the sensibilities of Shaun of the Dead in a zombie outbreak that starts with Minogue and O’Leary’s precinct rivals mindlessly going through the motions of their job, which includes hassling drivers and assuming that the white people are the victims in any conflict they break up. There’s no cure for the zombie plague, but once infected, the zombie officers aren’t locked up, or even just fired — they just end up on desk duty.

That mix of earnestness and idiocy makes the cops of Wellington Paranormal in some ways similar to The Office’s Michael Scott or Dwight Schrute. That show was at its worst when other characters were forced into deeply uncomfortable and abusive situations by men with power over them, then would somehow grin and bear it, and even try to make their bosses better people. The ignorant and incompetent officers of Wellington Paranormal are mostly dealing with each other or actual monsters, providing the same dark humor about having to deal with awful people who have power over you, without eliciting real sympathy for anyone.

By giving the protagonists a whole city to poorly police, Wellington Paranormal makes their failings both greater and more diffuse. The cops are often victims themselves, forced to flee all manner of supernatural threats, and they’re unwitting accomplices to the vampires and demons they let off the hook. When they do succeed, it’s at something petty, like dealing with a noise complaint or cleaning up a mess of their own making.

Ben Fransham as a looming melty-faced monster called “Cheeseface” in Wellington Paranormal Photo: Stan Alley/New Zealand Documentary Board

The officers lose or misuse their equipment, fail to observe even the most basic clues, and have hugely unearned confidence in their own abilities. They’re more likely to fail in a mission because they left their car’s lights running and the battery died than because they were actually manipulated by a wily supernatural creature. But given that this is the same world as What We Do in the Shadows, the creatures they’re facing aren’t exactly criminal geniuses. In both works, everyone gets the adversary they deserve.

What We Do in the Shadows and Wellington Paranormal provide an alternative to the escapism of most genre films and procedurals. For audiences who fantasize about exciting, dark, and even romantic vampiric adventures in the vein of Twilight or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, What We Do in the Shadows argues that undeath probably would just have the same mix of tedium and small pleasures as regular life. For those who want the world to be an orderly place where cops solve crimes and keep everyone safe, Wellington Paranormal notes that law enforcement would probably be just as bad at stopping werewolves and vampires as they are at preventing real crime. Those ideas might not be particularly empowering, but they are absurdly funny.

The first two episodes of Wellington Paranormal air at 9 PM ET July 11 on the CW. New episodes air on Sundays. Episodes stream free on The CW’s app the day after release.