With season 5 starting this week, we attempt the fool’s errand of narrowing down the greatest episodes (so far) of the greatest sitcom.
Season 5 of What We Do in the Shadows premieres tomorrow, and you might have some difficulty parsing that it’s already there. Many sitcoms tend to run out of steam by season 5 (you’ll note that exactly when Fonzie jumped the shark), resorting to dropping plot arcs without explanation, swapping out established characters for newer, less interesting characters, setting up tiresome romances, and relying on gimmick episodes, like flashbacks, clip shows, and musicals. Despite its supernatural premise, What We Do in the Shadows still follows much of the standard sitcom structure, so it’s a minor miracle that it’s still the freshest, funniest half-hour show on television right now, without anyone having to put on a fat suit or get stuck in an elevator.
If anything, it’s so consistently funny that if some genius were to, say, come up with the idea of ranking the top 10 funniest episodes, it might prove to be a more challenging task than expected. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff when there is no chaff, but you can’t simply bake it all into one big glorious loaf of bread? Never mind, I’m mixing my metaphors. With a great deal of difficulty, I managed to narrow down 40 episodes to 25, then 25 to 15, then “well, maybe I can make it a top 15 list,” then finally, after no small amount of shifting positions, the final 10, conceding that I could include an “honorable mention” section if need be. Choosing a college wasn’t this strife with indecision.
I present this list with the caveat (that no one will pay attention to) that this is my own selection, and it will likely differ wildly from everyone else’s (except for the choice for number 1, which I am dead certain we’ll all agree on).
10. “Manhattan Night Club” (Season 1, Episode 4, directed by Jemaine Clement, written by Tom Scharpling)
Though the upper half of the list skews heavily towards seasons 3 and 4, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with this first-season classic, which introduces Simon the Devious (Nick Kroll), the unlikely leader of the Manhattan vampire clan and owner of a trendy nightclub. Hoping to impress Simon, who was once lovers with Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), Laszlo (Matt Berry) attends a meeting with Simon while wearing one of his prized possessions, a hideous, cursed hat made from a witch’s skin (which appears to be still bleeding). Written by comedian and podcaster Tom Scharpling, “Manhattan Night Club” is gleefully silly, and features some of the series’ best asides, such as the claim that Laszlo’s hat caused the Irish Potato Famine. It also may be the first time that Nandor (Kayvan Novak) grudgingly expresses some affection for Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), clumsily saving him from another vampire and then taking him flying to make it up to him – during which he promptly drops him.
9. “Pine Barrens” (Season 4, Episode 7, directed by Kyle Newacheck, written by Sarah Naftalis)
Skillfully combining absurd comedy with poignancy, “Pine Barrens” finds a squabbling Nandor and Laszlo, along with a now-sullen adolescent Baby Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), invited on a hunting trip with neighbor Sean (Anthony Atamanuik) deep in rural southern New Jersey. Featuring a special guest appearance by the Jersey Devil, the A-plot, which also sees Nandor and Laszlo airing out their differences (it turns out they just miss spending time together), balances the more touching (but still very funny) B-plot, in which Guillermo invites his family over to the house for dinner, unaware that Nadja is home. But his family full of vampire hunters knows, and when they confront her, Guillermo is forced to admit two uncomfortable truths about himself, one of which they’re far more accepting of than the other. In addition to learning more about Guillermo’s background, it’s nice to see him team up with Nadja, who up to this point has barely tolerated him.
8. “The Cloak of Duplication” (Season 3, Episode 2, directed by Yana Gorskaya, written by Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil)
Admittedly, this episode made the cut thanks mostly to Novak doing near spot-on vocal impersonations of his co-stars’ characters, as they’re all at separate times disguised as Nandor after using the titular Cloak of Duplication. It’s one of the many mysterious treasures found in the Chamber of Curiosities (along with Abraham Van Helsing’s genitals in a jar), and Nandor uses the cloak for the most mundane of tasks: wooing a perplexed receptionist at a 24-hour gym. It’s hard to decide when the episode peaks between when Colin-as-Nandor attempts to neg the receptionist (greeting her with “Hey, dipshit”), or when Laszlo-as-Nandor serenades her with Steely Dan’s “Peg,” but either one makes it a series highlight, and that’s even without its tender turn when Guillermo-as-Nandor admits out loud what the audience has long expected.
7. “Resurrection” (Season 2, Episode 1, directed by Kyle Newacheck, written by Marika Sawyer)
Considering that Guillermo is now one of the family (more or less), it’s almost bittersweet (and yet hilarious) to look back on the earlier episodes that best illustrated the disrespect and ingratitude he was initially treated with by Nandor and the others, even though by this point he was regularly saving their lives from vampire hunters. In “Resurrection,” Laszlo and Nadja acquire their own familiar, a useless buffoon named Topher (Haley Joel Osment), who they inexplicably adore even though he makes a quarter of the effort that Guillermo does. When Topher is accidentally killed, the gang takes him to an easily distracted necromancer (Benedict Wong), to disastrous results. But it’s not all bad: everyone gets free personalized key rings!
6. “The Trial” (Season 1, Episode 7, directed by Taika Waititi, written by Jemaine Clement)
I’m not a fan of showy cameos, but it’s hard to resist this season 1 gem, which finds the gang standing before the Vampiric Council to answer to the accidental death of the Baron. Introducing Kristen Schaal, who would become a series regular in season 3, the episode (which feels like a season finale but isn’t) suggests that nearly all vampire media evidently exists in the same universe, as the Vampiric Council includes Tilda Swinton as her Only Lovers Left Alive character, Wesley Snipes (via Zoom), Paul Reubens, Evan Rachel Wood, Danny Trejo, and, of course, Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, and Jonathan Brugh, the original roommates from the original What We Do in the Shadows. On its own merits, “The Trial” is a mid-level episode, but there’s just something delightful about seeing all these characters gathered together, addressing the mundanities of decision-making.
5. “Colin’s Promotion” (Season 2, Episode 5, directed by Jemaine Clement, written by Shanna Gohd)
I could just say “Colin Robinson’s hair” and that would be enough reason for this episode to make the cut. But here, he redefines what “failing upward” means when he gets promoted within the company he works for, even though he’s not entirely sure what they do there (it’s either playground equipment design or landmine design), With his employees now forced to listen to his dull “working hard or hardly working” banter, going to work is a buffet of sapped energy for Colin Robinson, who becomes so strong from daily feeding that he grows a head full of luxurious hair, develops the ability to fly, and can even duplicate himself. He perfectly fits every stereotype about middle management consisting mostly of redundant, boring losers who fell into their positions by accident, and thrive on the misery of others.
4. “Go Flip Yourself” (Season 4, Episode 8, directed by Yana Gorskaya, written by Marika Sawyer)
Simon the Devious returns in a twist on a flawless parody of Property Brothers, featuring Randy and Jason Sklar as twin house flippers Bran and Toby Daltry (although Toby is immediately killed), who select the gang’s dilapidated home for a televised renovation. Bran’s attempts to talk them into such useless-for-a-vampire improvements as floor-to-ceiling windows and gold toilets are not just part of an extremely long con by Simon to once again snatch away Laszlo’s beloved witch skin hat, but result in what might be (so far) the most oft-quoted line in all of What We Do in the Shadows, when Laszlo, with utter contempt in his voice, tells Simon “You really are the most devious bastard in Nyew York Citaaaaay.”
3. “The Casino” (S3, Ep. 4, directed by Yana Gorskaya, written by Sarah Naftalis)
Okay, fine. This one’s just for me. A road trip episode probably wouldn’t have stood out for me so much if not for the fact that it’s a road trip to Atlantic City, my hometown, which I have a grudging affection for even though it’s a toilet that’s been about to crumble into the ocean for over two decades. Yes, true, much of the episode, in which the gang is invited on a weekend trip to celebrate neighbor Sean and his wife’s wedding anniversary, wasn’t actually filmed in Atlantic City, but the opening credits were, and those credits perfectly capture its innate weirdness, where garish tourist attractions stand just a block away from guys vomiting into trash cans and lurid “Christ Died for Your Sins” signs. That’s right, I’m ranking an episode as almost the best largely on a credits sequence, though, to be fair, Nandor getting addicted to a Big Bang Theory pinball is pretty hilarious too, as is Nadja and Laszlo believing that a Rat Pack cover group is the real thing, even though the singer playing Frank Sinatra is Asian-American (his saying “Ring-a-ding-ding” is good enough to soothe Laszlo’s doubts).
2. “Private School” (Season, Episode 5, directed by Kyle Newacheck, written by Ayo Edebiri & Shana Gohd)
Another all killer, no filler episode from season 4 (and co-written by The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri, no less), this episode centers on Laszlo, now a devoted father to Baby Colin Robinson, attempting to enroll the lad in an elite performing arts school, which ultimately results in the gang discovering that brain scramblies after being hypnotized one too many times can be fatal. What sends this episode nearly to the top of the list are some unforgettable, laughing-till-crying sight gags, such as the gang wearing their interpretation of “human clothes” (Nandor looks like he’s about to join the late 90s swing music revival), and Nandor, hoping to look more attractive for his fiancee, getting some truly horrific plastic surgery, including an eyelift that’s so effective he can’t see out of them. I just thought of that scene while writing this, and laughed out loud.
1. “On the Run” (Season 2, Episode 6, directed by Yana Gorskaya, written by Stefani Robinson)
Here is, finally, where everyone’s opinions can peacefully align. Though What We Do in the Shadows is still the most consistently funny show currently on television, I don’t know if it’s yet to repeat the monumental success of “On the Run,” which sees Laszlo trying to escape a debt owed to one Jim the Vampire (Mark Hamill) by fleeing to a small town in Pennsylvania and disguising himself as a “regular human bartender” named Jackie Daytona (after killing the actual human bartender). What starts out as a farce becomes unexpectedly warm and loving, when Laszlo is embraced by the little town, and begins enthusiastically supporting the local women’s volleyball team (even if that support means having to commit arson several times), learning to be kinder in the process. It’s challenging to maintain an even balance between sweetness and satire (not to mention an excellent gag involving a Big Mouth Billy Bass), and this episode succeeds marvelously. I don’t know who would have put something different at number one, but they are incorrect.
Honorable Mention: “Baron’s Night Out” (Season 1, Episode 6), “Brain Scramblies” (Season 2, Episode 3), “Gail” (Season 3, Episode 3), “The Night Market” (Season 4, Episode 4, directed by Yana Gorskaya, written by William Meny & Paul Simms)
Season 5 of What We Do in the Shadows premieres on FX and Hulu July 13th.