Cassandra Ciangherotti (left), Julio Torres, Bernardo Velasco, and Ana Fabrega
Photo: Jennifer Clasen (HBO)
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A bone-dry comedy for anyone who ever sat in front of a TV trying to conjure a showing of Beetlejuice, Los Espookys arrives in mid-June like a tall glass of cold water garnished with a prop eyeball. Created by Fred Armisen, Saturday Night Live wunderkind Julio Torres (he of “Wells For Boys” and “Papyrus”), and Ana Fabrega, the show concerns a quartet of friends who form a “horror group,” channeling their interests in monster movies and creepy prosthetics into a hustle that promises to break them out of lives defined by expired cellphone minutes, dental-assistant drudgery, and barely tolerating their statuesque boyfriend while waiting around to inherit their parents’ copyright-flouting chocolate empire. It’s a deadpan daydream written and performed primarily in Spanish (with English subtitles, which switch to Spanish subtitles for scenes in English), set in an imaginary, unnamed Latin American country. The handmade look and understated punchlines recall another HBO comedy about realizing creative ambitions on a shoestring—though Flight Of The Conchords never featured a parasitic demon who’ll only divulge their host’s secret past after getting to watch a middle-of-the-road Best Picture winner.

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Los Espookys are Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco), Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), Andrés (Torres), and Tati (Fabrega), who, when the show begins, are putting their flair for goop and guts to work at the quinceañera of Renaldo’s Coraline-loving sister. Each has a reason to feel outcast or incomplete: Renaldo was isolated from his classmates at a young age due to the “y” missing from his name—one of several gags aided and abetted by the subtitles. (As we learn in flashback, he found a sense of belonging by watching a horror movie about a woman who’s missing an eye. Eh? Ehhh?) Andrés is the aforementioned chocolate scion, left on the doorstep of an orphanage as a child and now being pushed into what seems like an otherwise unobjectionable, power-consolidating romance with heir to a cookie fortune Juan Carlos (José Pablo Minor), whose piercing gaze could melt whole mountains of the Valdez family’s new “Charlie Wonka” line.

Úrsula’s hardest to pin down, her 9-to-5 dissatisfaction the most mundane, and her season-long arc defined by Tati, whose series of odd jobs (emphasis on odd) eventually snares the sisters in a pyramid scheme. But before all of that, the quinceañera job gets the attention of a local priest, who asks Renaldo and friends to stage an exorcism in order to forestall the rise of a rival. That job gets a publicity boost via Tico (Fred Armisen), Renaldo’s uncle and a preternaturally gifted parker who’s emigrated to the U.S. to become Los Angeles’ greatest valet.

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Even at a time of increasingly adventurous TV comedy pitches, this one stands out, a sort of reverse Scooby-Doo setup: If you’re the executor of a will hoping to whittle down the number of benefactors by challenging them to survive a night in a haunted house, call Los Espookys. (Business-card disclaimer: “We’re not Ghostbusters… it’s different.”) But inheritance scares, fake exorcisms, and sea monsters luring tourists to floundering beach towns are just the episodic bait on the hook. As the first season carries on, the jobs recede into the background, and Los Espookys’ personal lives come into focus. It’s a nifty misdirection worthy of such masters of practical effects: Characters initially defined by a shared passion for the strange and unusual get to demonstrate how they, themselves, are strange and unusual.

Photo: Jennifer Clasen (HBO)

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And they occupy a world to match, comprising wintergreen reception areas, Barbie Dreamhouse embassies, and the cerulean chambers of the Valdez mansion. Los Espookys’ scares are manufactured, but they’re surrounded by the supernatural, magical-realist flourishes like rogue reflections, or the pendant Andrés uses to keep an eye on Juan Carlos. Horror is Renaldo and friends’ escape from reality, but their reality is a welcome, heightened break from ours. The show operates at its own, peculiar register: More the backstage whispers of the folks simulating satanic possession, less the shouted prayers of exorcism. Los Espookys counters the graphic, startling nature of Renaldo, Úrsula, Andrés, and Tati’s work (and the occasional VHS wail) with a prevailing gentleness. It goes well with a show that many viewers will have to read along with (not that the reading distracts from any of Los Espookys’ visual inventiveness).

For this anglophone fan of straight-faced spoofs, at least, the dialogue is a crack-up. It’s an ideal synthesis of the three creators’ voices, each predisposed to a certain wry absurdity. There’s a lot Torres’ stand-up persona in Andrés, from his personal relationships with inanimate objects to his fondness for the clear and shiny. But they’re not the same person—Andrés has blue hair. (To that same end, Fabrega distinguished Tati from herself in the pages of Vulture: “That’s not me. I’m wearing a hat.”) Such drollery verges on twee, but it’s backed up by Los Espookys’ stunningly realized vision: A workplace comedy with a consistent visual aesthetic and a trusty divining rod for rooting the easily overlooked wonder and mystery (and, sure, horror) of life. The pilot episode sums up the show’s comedic perspective in a single subtitle, translating the wannabe exorcist’s lament while Tati—in the first of many occupations she’ll hold throughout the season—stands behind him, spinning the blades of an electric fan by hand:

Screenshot: Los Espookys

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With so much being communicated through the subtitles, the storytelling has to stay relatively simple. But as the show starts playing up its characters and playing down their paranormal hijinks, a tidy fable about the nature of collaboration emerges, underlining the critical role each individual Espooky plays in the operation. Tempers may flare and priorities may temporarily shift, but they’ve hit upon something special together, and it’s made possible by an aggregate of each individual members’ specialness. When one of them pulls out, or diverts their attention to other things, the jobs go awry: A client is nearly lost because Andrés and Úrsula lack Renaldo’s people skills, or a client gets really lost in the cursed mirror that caught Andrés’ fancy.

Some of the puzzle pieces fall together more cleanly than others. Tico plays a crucial role in helping his nephew realize what he thinks is his dream, but he’s largely there for wacky side adventures starring Armisen. There’s also the subplot involving the glamorous somnambulist who anchors the news show that gives Los Espookys their first big break, a tangent that could be lampooning Westworld or telenovela amnesiacs, but definitely dovetails with Úrsula’s storyline later on. But even the madcap suds of those scenes can’t make up for what’s missing from them: Los Espookys. They’re at when they’re together, and so is the show that bears their name.

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