Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews the What We Do in the Shadows (the movie) spin-off series Wellington Paranormal.
When Wellington Paranormal debuts in the U.S. this week, first on The CW (on July 11) and the next day on HBO Max, it’ll be in a unique position. The What We Do In The Shadows film spin-off series, created by Jemaine Clements and Taika Waititi, aired its first season in New Zealand three years ago but is only just now making its way across the Pacific. The series has aired three full seasons abroad in the interim, and American fans have already watched and adored two seasons of a totally different spin-off, the Staten Island-set Shadows series. When it finally arrives, the result is a dryly funny mockumentary series that’s impossible not to compare to the franchises’ other titles.
Wellington Paranormal follows two police officers, Minogue (Mike Minogue) and O’Leary (Karen O’Leary), investigating unusual phenomena around the New Zealand capital. In a sequence that doubles as a hilarious parody of The X Files, the two are introduced to the world of cryptids and monsters by their Sergeant, Ruawai Maaka (Maaka Pohatu). “Do you believe in ghosts?” Maaka asks before showing the pair a rudimentary drawing of a skeleton with a top hat and cane that he claims his brother saw in a bathroom at age ten. The series quickly becomes a workplace comedy procedural with a supernatural bent. Still, some of its best moments are genre homages featuring practical effects, music, and references that call to mind everything from The X Files to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Star Trek: The Original Series.
Wellington Paranormal’s best quality is also the one that likely made it difficult to distribute internationally; the series is unabashedly local. Clements and Waititi have spoken about hiring friends and non-actors in the 2014 shoestring-budget film that started the franchise, despite the lack of headliners making it tougher to pitch to Hollywood types. Wellington Paranormal is equally uncompromising, working to make New Zealanders laugh without stopping too long to explain itself to everyone else. For example, the series makes great use of local touchstones, filling the famous Bucket Fountain with blood and dubbing city center Cuba Street the gateway to hell. And while American cops have a long history of violence against Black Americans, Wellington Paranormal instead appropriately mentions anti-Māori sentiments in a scene involving “racist zombie cops.”
The new series suffers only when compared to its sibling series, FX’s What We Do In The Shadows. Wellington Paranormal is episodic to a fault, less narratively ambitious than Shadows and therefore more forgettable in its first season. It offers bite-sized entertainment, but with only six short episodes in its debut season, there’s not much time for the characters to find their footing, either. Clements’ works, in particular, are at their best when offering portraits of surprisingly sweet adult friendships, but with Wellington Paranormal’s short first season firmly entrenched in the workplace, there’s little space for character bonding.
Despite its relative shortcomings, Wellington Paranormal is endlessly rewatchable, its wry, understated humor almost requiring several viewings in order to catch every bit. One of the best recurring jokes involves Officers Minogue and O’Leary matter-of-factly explaining obvious things to the camera, even during moments of distress. After shining a flashlight on a room full of ghosts, O’Leary offers, “Often, when you’re alive, the light won’t pass directly through you like that.” As the central trio, Minogue, O’Leary, and Pohatu are well-cast, and it’s no surprise their comedic chops have already helped earn the series two additional seasons.
All in all, Wellington Paranormal is a drolly-funny cross-genre series with all the trappings of a cult classic. Officers Minogue and O’Leary have many more monsters to chase down, and lucky for us, we already know they will.