What starts as a comedy about faking spooky encounters quickly transforms into a spooky encounter all its own in HBO’s new Spanish-language entry, “Los Espookys.” Created by Fred Armisen, Ana Fabrega, and Julio Torres, the half-hour original series follows a group of friends whose shared enthusiasm for horror leads them into the business of scares. That could mean convincing people a mansion is haunted or helping a priest perform a fake exorcism to show off, but it’s the details surrounding each character, their setting, and this strange story that sets “Los Espookys” apart — as well as an apropos indulgence of spine-tingling fantasy within the show’s intriguing alternate reality.
Take Renaldo (played by Bernardo Velasco). A horror and gore enthusiast, Renaldo is the group’s leader. He wants to pursue his fascination with frights full-time, be it by building a haunted birthday party for his cousin or attracting tourists with a fake sea monster. Like many characters when they’re first introduced, you don’t know much else about Renaldo: He’s clearly passionate, kind, and obsessed with this work, but instead of trying to build him out more, the writers recognize what he’s already bringing to the table and how much fun each new gig can be, so they don’t let him have any other interests. He won’t even sleep with his beautiful neighbor because he only cares about horror.
Meanwhile, as a savvy juxtaposition, Andres (Julio Torres) has loads of other obsessions. The adopted heir to a chocolate empire, Andres wants nothing more than to learn the secrets of his past — which are denied to him via absurd, hysterical, and inventive roadblocks. (There’s a water demon trapped inside him who knows something but will only tell him if he watches a movie?) Plus, he’s also dating a boy who’s bad for him — but, by Andres’ own admission, he’s invested too much time in the relationship, so he’s not just going to kick him to the curb.
Andres, with his blue hair and lavish ensembles, also offers the first hints at an all-around spectacular production. The cheesy frights constructed by Los Espookys are just believable enough to be convincing, while goofy enough to draw laughs from the audience who’s in on their tricks. It doesn’t matter that most of what they do is impossible — the world they work in is on the fun side of fantastical, which allows the production team to go crazy and invites the viewers to appreciate their craft. The jokes they find through haunted mirrors and trick beds are as surprising as they are clever.
And then there are the sisters. Ursula (Cassandra Ciangherotti) is a no-nonsense dental assistant who’s crummy boss doesn’t believe in her dream and doesn’t respect her work. But she loves working for Los Espookys, even if it’s not quite as much as her sister’s blissful love for everything around them. Tati (Ana Fabrega) is the wild card, and she works wonders. Serving as the group’s test dummy, which means doing everything from playing a possessed orphan to doing dishes during a haunted dinner party, Tati meets every task with an unbreakable spirit. She’s not exactly bubbly, but Fabrega’s deadpan delivery of outrageous asides is consistently the highlight of each episode. (Just wait ’til she gets a boyfriend.)
Armisen, while the most well-known name Stateside, has a small role that supports the main story without stealing focus. As Renaldo’s uncle Tico, Armisen plays a prodigious valet driver who’s the only person in the world who can park two cars at once. He loves his job, loves his life in Los Angeles, and he only pops in to lend a hand with his nephew’s business pursuits. Whether it’s delivering a fake head to a spacey news reporter or passing along a message from a Hollywood director, Tico’s assists are like a nice bonus — and Armisen, as always, is having a blast.
Clocking in at six episodes, the first season moves well, gets the details right, and packs in the laughs at every turn. It’s never scary, and even its appreciation of a good scare, which leads to a gross-out gag or two, keeps the focus on the craft talent who made it happen. Plus, for those less than fluent in Spanish, the visual jokes and emphasis on design make it easy to sink into the story — you’re not forced to keep up with a screed of subtitles, so much as you’re asked to appreciate every corner of the screen. Once you see it, there’s a lot to like, spooky and otherwise.
“Los Espookys” premiered at the 2019 ATX TV Festival. The half-hour comedy will make its debut on HBO Friday, June 14 at 11 p.m. ET.