Now streaming on NEON, Los Espookys is a new paranormal comedy series like no other. As Tim Batt details, the show blends supernatural hijinks with a strain of comedy rich in absurdism, darkness and bone-dry satirical commentary.
Los Espookys is a stylish, strange and hyper-contemporary six-episode paranormal comedy series from HBO which will appeal to people who are cooler than I am. Most of the cast will be unfamiliar to kiwi viewers but you’ll probably recognise SNL hall-of-famer Fred Armisen and possibly series co-creator Ana Fabrega. Armisen created the weird, hyper-contemporary comedy series mocking liberal suburbanites Portlandia (Fabrega appeared in an episode), and this new series shares some of straight-delivery comedy DNA. The show is set in an unnamed Latin American country and is predominately in Spanish with English subtitles. It centres on four friends who band together to create a spooky-solutions-for-hire business. To borrow from the show though, “it’s not Ghostbusters—it’s different”.
Armisen co-wrote the pilot and features as a hapless but well-intentioned valet attendant and uncle to the show’s lead, Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco). He’s on a parallel adventure to the main cast and occasionally intersects with the gang, but wisely the show uses him sparingly so the younger actors can shine. On-screen, Armisen mirrors the role I assume he played off-screen; A kind of adult overseer for the younger talent to go and be as weird as possible with the safety net of a grown-up in the room to ensure they won’t hand something too avant-garde to HBO (spoiler: they didn’t but came pretty close). It’s the kind of low-key character that fits Armisen’s considerable talents like a glove.
The gang is comprised of a wealthy heir to a chocolate fortune struggling with his identity and autonomy (Julio Torres); a seemingly airheaded and directionless 20-something woman trying to find love and life purpose (Fabrega); a hard-nosed older sister attempting to safeguard her naïve sibling while chasing down enough money to stay afloat (Cassandra Ciangherotti), and their leader; a horror movie-obsessed, potentially asexual makeup artist who is struggling to lead the group and realise his dream (Velasco).
One of the more impressive writing feats of the show is the full development of each character’s journey and motivation within the six-episode run. The plot vacillates between the highly relatable personal struggles of under-30-year-olds searching for money, true love and life purpose, and high concept supernatural hijinks. Multi-level marketing schemes and existential self-doubt are just as threatening to our heroes as the comically ditzy American ambassador. And then there’s the actual demons to contend with.
In the world of Los Espookys, real supernatural events are unassumingly presented alongside fake ones created by the ragtag Scooby gang for their clients. Real cursed mirrors, magic gazing crystals and a parasitic demon (who really wants to watch a certain Oscar-awarded 2010 film) sit right next to ropes and pulleys used to perform a fake exorcism. There’s a Mighty Boosh stage-costume feel to even the show’s ‘real’ paranormal characters, which makes them feel almost as constructed as the ‘fake’ unearthly aspects. It can be a little jarring at the start but by the end of the season, the visible special effects just add to the confident and unique feel of the show. It adds a kind of simplified Michel Gondry-quality to the show, which grew on me.
Aside from the pilot, the series was written entirely by 27-year-old Fabrega (of Panamanian descent) and 32-year-old Salvadoran-American absurdist comedian Julio Torres. In typical millennial fashion Fabrega (who’s also a stand-up comedian) claims writer/actor/executive producer credits. I list the pair’s ages because these creative polymaths make me feel old, unaccomplished and at least in the first couple of episodes, insufficiently cool to hang out with their crew.
The tone is comedy through and through. Not dark comedy (though there’s dark elements). Not horror comedy (though they reference horror). It’s comedy. If you want a subgenre, I’d label it millennial comedy. That recognisable combination of absurdism, darkness and bone-dry satirical commentary. Every single American depicted in the show is a different flavour of flaming dickhead, for example. That particular choice is a satisfying answer from Latin America to the cultural imperialism the Yanks have enjoyed, unabated, for so long.
The series is good. It’s funny. It looks like Wes Anderson shot a lot of the scenes in his downtime but employed a Ritalin-addled colour grader who went overboard on the saturation—all adding up to a very 2019 look. The synth-heavy soundtrack is a less cheesy (and better) version of the cynically nostalgia-inducing music of Stranger Things. The story, writing and acting are highly specific—not exclusionary per se, like how a high school bully is. But exclusive, like how the coolest kid in school who wears bright K-Mart hoodies to class with such confidence you feel unworthy in their presence is.
The skilled but subtle performances of these weird, low-energy characters can make the show hard to penetrate at first, especially coupled with learning the specific supernatural rules of Los Espookys’ world. Having 90% of the show subtitled adds an additional mental tax. However, for most of the target demo, the rewards from this unique comedy series will be worth it. It did take me about three episodes to get fully on board.
Why did it take me half a season? Probably because my tastes are slipping into too conservative and staid territory for me to instantly jump on a foreign language supernatural comedy series from HBO. And that’s a damn shame. This isn’t a negative review of the show. This is a negative review of myself.
I liked the series but I didn’t love it. But I’d love to love it. And that’s on me. I absolutely recommend it though, at just six episodes this utterly unique show is worth the investment because, for the right viewer, this show will be the greatest thing you’ve ever seen on television.