Occasionally, a cultural artifact will emerge that is so peculiar that there is not yet an adequate vocabulary to describe it. That was certainly the case with HBO’s Los Espookys, a show whose narratives so effectively evaded Hollywood convention that even its writers struggled to find an elevator pitch.
In an interview on The Tonight Show in September, co-creator Ana Fabrega called it “a show about a group of friends who have a business where they stage different kinds of stunts for people who need it.” Co-creator, comedian Julio Torres explained on NPR that the friends live in “a made-up Latin American country” and “create fake, supernatural and horror experiences.” Faced with the inevitable question of what “Late Night With Seth Myers” is about, comedian Fred Armisen, who first laid the groundwork for the series with HBO, stumbled a bit and then said it’s about friends who “get hired to fooling people and scaring people.”
It’s all a bit like saying that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a play about governance. Not technically wrong, but hardly the full picture.
Watching Los Espookys was like sliding down a rabbit hole of Latin bizarre: a preposterous mix of deadly absurdity, slapstick comedy, telenovela plot twists, and goth aesthetic steeped in the surreal and supernatural. The show was so stubbornly unclassifiable that it seems HBO didn’t quite know what to do with it. Deadline reported on Friday that Los Espookys had been canceled after two seasons.
That’s too bad. Because the show was unique in the stories it told and the way it told them — and actively subverted every Hollywood trope about Latinos. Instead of hackneyed plots about gangbangers and maids, “Los Espookys” delivered stories inspired by Latin America’s passion for the paranormal – and it did it brilliantly.
A character fought with a parasitic demon; another rewrote “Don Quixote” word for word. A subplot focused on the brainwashed anchor of a show in the vein of “Alarma TV,” the sensationalist news programs typical of Spanish-language television (where tales of lurid crimes and unlikely monsters are told with serious seriousness by beautiful women in tight dresses) . . And let’s not forget the US ambassador, introduced as a blonde party girl who worked in a barbie-pink embassy and hoped to one day become an ambassador in Miami to have “weird meetings with conservative Latinos.”
Imagine “Scooby-Doo” as written by Jorge Luis Borges and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, and you can begin to appreciate the mood.
“Los Espookys” was impossible to describe because there was no equivalent. The show didn’t try to be directly macabre, nor did it fit neatly into the sitcom mold (either US or Latin America). Instead, it seemed content to inhabit an underworld in between.
Its closest U.S. relatives might be FX’s vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, which wraps supernatural themes around a mockumentary structure, and Netflix’s “Wednesday,” which is the ooky-creepy Addams Family franchise with a mostly Latino twist Cast restarts.
However, “Espookys” was not an American comedy with a Latino veneer. The show’s architecture borrows directly from the conventions of Latin American storytelling, including surrealist literature and rural folklore. The characters inhabited an unnamed place where magic is an undisputed part of everyday life, where the grotesque affects culture as much as anything beamed in from the US, where humor is dead in the face of violence and death.
In this fantastic universe lived the four Espookys: Renaldo (played by Bernardo Velasco), a congenial chico dark (aka Goth), who is obsessed with horror movies and a bloated lapdog named Frutsi; Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), a former dental assistant who is the most practical (least impractical?) of the group, rolling eyes at machismo and making sure everyone gets paid; Andrés (Torres in a series of deeply saturated blue ensembles), the glamorous, otherworldly heir to a chocolate fortune; and the dingbat Tati (Fabrega), who constantly tries on new roles while performing several unlikely jobs – such as manually turning the second hand of a broken tower clock.
Armisen was a regular performer as LA’s Renaldos Tío Tico, known in the family as a parking prodigy.
Together, Los Espookys pursued their most unlikely profession: creating “experiences” for a variety of corrupt, insane, and self-serving clients, which might involve faking a solar eclipse or haunting a graveyard. Or maybe a cuddly rabbit alien named Bibis (portrayed by Renaldo) who emerges from a giant egg and fakes internal bleeding to teach a classroom full of wayward kids a valuable lesson. (The humor was gritty, but the show was never scary, and its gadgets were always hilariously DIY.)
Often the best moments were in the throwaway lines. One of the running gags in season two was that Renaldo suffered from insomnia and saw apparitions of a brutally murdered beauty pageant contestant. Hoping that a good night’s sleep will fix the problem, his buddy Andrés grabs a tackle box full of pills. “This is when your shadow escapes,” he says, admiring a pod. “This one is for when you get a headache after seeing through a lot of crow’s eyes at once. And this one should sleep.”
The subplots were also sublimely absurd. In a flashback, a young Úrsula appears before a judge from the Real Academia Española (similar to the Spanish version of the English Oxford dictionary) to argue about the role of the double El – like the “ll” of Lama – in the Spanish alphabet. The chamber she visits is aesthetically straight out of the Spanish Inquisition. In another, Andrés is cast out by his parents and becomes a model in a stairwell showroom – but is quickly smitten by a kind millionaire who takes him home as a surrogate parent to his two children (and a lover to himself). Imagine the cinematic language of a ’70s hustler who encounters a telenovela story about an evil stepmother.
If this all sounds ridiculous, you haven’t spent time in the weirder recesses of the Latin American imagination. A few weeks ago, during a night of endless scrolling on Instagram, I came across a post from the Mexican daily Milenio in which Platanito, a famous TV clown, apologized for making a lewd joke about a murdered woman – while he decked out in full clown make-up.
Los Espookys wasn’t a great show. At times, the gags felt more like a collection of one-liners than a coherent story about characters.
Dopey Tío Tico felt like a character flown in from another show (and possibly another era). And Tati was so lacking in self-confidence that she sometimes came across as a malfunctioning robot. In the ’70s Mexican TV comedy El Chavo del Ocho — which gives Los Espookys some of its slapstick sensibilities — the eponymous Chavo was an orphan living in a barrel (and raised by a middle-aged man was played). actor Roberto Gómez Bolaños). Chavo was a bald naif, but he also pierced the self-importance of others in a way that gave him a measure of power. It would be great if the goofy Tati, one of TV’s fantastically weirder characters, was given more agency to articulate the truths that others couldn’t or wouldn’t see.
But in its two short seasons, the show has accomplished a lot. “Los Espookys” embodied the Latino without being hampered by Hollywood’s narrow-minded vision of Latino life. Filmed mostly in Spanish, it didn’t contain a shred of explanatory dialogue. If you didn’t get the jokes about the Spanish alphabet, too bad. Nor was it obsessed with well-worn stories about immigration. In the first season, Tío Tico secures a film deal for the crew in LA, but most of them refuse to join him as they are busy with projects at home.
“Los Espookys” gave us a world where Latinos existed only in terms of themselves, not as satellites orbiting the United States — and that felt enlightening.
In the second season, which launched in September (after significant delays caused by the pandemic), the writing got sharper, the plots wilder and more literary. The cancellation hurts all the more. I was hoping that a third season might bring more narrative brilliance. (I was also hoping to learn what Tati was carrying around in her mysterious little bag.)
“Los Espookys” broke the narrative form. We hope that its too short existence will inspire more creators to break it again, and in different ways. I’m here for programs that delve into the uncanny — and especially more Latino storytelling that refuses to stay within boundaries.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-12-02/los-espookys-canceled-after-two-seasons-an-appreciation ‘Los Espookys’ is canceled, but their legacy will live on