Mysterious and Espooky
The Fantastical and Funny Adventures of Some Latin-American Goths, on HBO
They had me at the goth Quinceañera.
The opening scene of the pilot episode of HBO’s Los Espookys takes place at a 15-year-old’s birthday in Mexico made creepy and crawly with special effects, her caked-on vampire makeup, and a very dramatic severed limb.
Goth in Latin-American culture is a thing. It’s especially powerful in countries that are still very religious, or only a generation removed from very religious. This represents the flip side of Pixar’s Coco. They’re not just celebrating happy calaveras and warm, healthy feelings toward the circle of life and death. There’s a rather morbid fascination with the gross, transgressive, and disturbing.
The four main characters in the six-episode first season of the show get into the small-time business of making special effects for fake exorcisms and haunted houses. Each of them, Renaldo, Andrés, Úrsula, and Tati, is involved because they are hardcore horror fans who see themselves as outsiders, even though they are all bright, motivated to succeed, and very talented. They’re also, respectively: gay, possibly asexual, in a dead-end technical job, or detached from reality.
Uncle Tico joins them, played by Fred Armisen, a comedic actor known for investing so much into a low-key, funny-accurate, not always funny-ha-ha style of humor. Here, he’s a renowned valet parker who works in Los Angeles, but still maintains strong tides to his family across the border. He code-switches constantly, even with family, and represents the bridge between these dreamers in Mexico and the glamor of Hollywood special effects and moviemaking.
There’s potentially a really good drama about immigrant film fans and their struggle to break through, but the charm of Los Espookys is that it pulls off several threads about friendship, ambition, and creativity under financial limitations as humor. Three episodes into a six-episode first season, it functions as a clever, world-building comedy, something like Flight of the Conchords or 30 Rock, bending reality while winking at its own sly silliness.
For instance, Andrés’ family is perfectly fine with him being gay and sporting a head of bright blue hair, but also demands that he fulfill family obligations around their “Charlie Wonka” brand of knockoff chocolates. “What could be more important than chocolate and family?” his (adoptive?) father asks. When he’s not dodging family responsibilities, Andrés watches his boyfriend in an amulet charm. In future episodes, he has an encounter with a movie-loving mystical spirit.
In the show’s third episode, a cursed mirror traps a Legally Blonde-esque U.S. ambassador.
The host of a tabloid TV show may be a robot, or a brainwashed kidnapping victim, or something more supernatural.
A coastal tourist town has lost its main attraction (involving an owl and a wig), but gets its mojo back with a fake monster crafted by our Espookys.
And one running joke is that the characters are aware when a flashback happens, or when the script calls upon someone to look dramatically into the middle-distance. It’s self-referenced without formally breaking the fourth wall, another quirky tic in a show that is full of ideas and great jokes, but which doesn’t strain to call excess attention to any of the unusual things it’s doing.
I suspect that the subtitles, the emphasis on horror lore, and some of the show’s more fantastical elements will lose some viewers along the way. But Los Espookys has so much charm and sharp writing that it feels like a beloved under-the-radar hit in the making.
My Latinx friends and I have never seen anything like this on American television, but we know the exact origins of its specific and special ingredients. For people like me, it’s doubly delightful for incorporating so many of my childhood preoccupations: horror, Spanish-English wordplay, oddball people, and elastic reality. Call it “magical realism”, if you must. Regardless, with Los Espookys, HBO has given us another finely crafted, short-run sitcom.