Monday, May 20, 2024

Los Espookys brings a little light to the darkness

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Remember how much you loved Scooby Doo as a kid? Despite its intense, feverish dumbness? What if you could have a modern Scooby Doo, updated for adults: a cartoon about a goofy group of young people who, instead of solving mysteries, create them?

Los Espookys is your show. Okay, it’s not a cartoon, but it might as well be. It’s whimsical and strange; things happen that don’t seem quite real. We’re in some unspecified Latin American country, where a family-owned chocolate business counts as royalty and exerts serious power over the community, where the Barbie-esque news anchor powers off after her broadcasts like a robot, and the American ambassador works out of a pink princess office where her main job is to be an Instagram influencer.

Our intrepid heroes are a group of friends whose hobby and side gig is making horror-movie special effects. They consist of Ursula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), a disaffected dental assistant in Doc Martens; Tati (Ana Fabrega), Ursula’s easygoing and deeply weird younger sister; Andrés (Julio Torres), the fabulous blue-haired heir to the Chocolate Throne; and Renaldo with no”y” (Bernardo Velasco), your friendly local goth and the group’s erstwhile leader — a nice kid who just happens to be obsessed with creepy stuff, including the movies of his hero, the horror movie director Bianca Nova (who eventually makes an appearance, played by Carol Kane.) The show opens on the set that these protagonists created for a horror-themed quinceañera for Renaldo’s younger sister, featuring treats sporting eyeballs and spurting blood.

In the control room from which they’re staging a haunted mansion, Renaldo gives a pep talk to the team.

Did I mention Fred Armisen is in this? He plays Renaldo’s uncle Tico, who works as a valet in L.A., and is unusually talented at parking cars; he is something of a legend. It is said he can park two cars at the same time. Fred Armisen, in fact, co-wrote and created the series with comedians Ana Fabrega and Julio Torres. (For more surreal fun, check out Julio Torres’ Netflix special, My Favorite Shapes.)

The plot of Los Espookys moves along with a satisfying mixture of one-off episode-y problems to solve and longer storylines. The gang gains a reputation after being featured by Gregoria (the Stepford Wife show host), and they start getting gigs. They get recruited to stage an exorcism for an aging priest who wants to show up his younger, cooler rival, and to fake a sea monster in order to bring tourism to a seaside town whose former claim to fame was an owl wearing a little wig (the mayor explains that they have lost the wig.) 

In the meantime, they must deal with the drama of their own lives. Ursula struggles with her stifling job; Renaldo’s mom doesn’t understand his interest in horror, and just wants him to get together with the nice girl who moved in across the hall, who, his mom tells him (with daughter-in-law dreams in her eyes) is a virgin. Andrés has a boyfriend, Juan Carlos (José Pablo Minor), the heir to a cookie fortune, whom Andrés’ parents want him to marry in order to consolidate their snack empires. Juan Carlos is insufferably shallow and callous, but Andrés, who was adopted and fears his parents could cut him off from their wealth, feels pressure to go through with it. For her part, Tati keeps getting fired from jobs like breaking in peoples’ new shoes, or moving the second hand of the clock tower (restaurant-goers on the street show their confusion: How can it be 4:00 pm already?). Everyone (except Andrés) is broke, and that plus Tati’s blithe trust in the universe leads to her getting taken in by a multilevel marketing scheme run by a creepily energetic hype/businessman played by John Early. 

Tati has bought quite a bit of Hierbalite products.

Queer rep is woven deep into this show without fanfare. There’s Andrés and Juan Carlos; also Ursula is queer, and has a mysterious woman admirer. Renaldo states repeatedly that he has no interest in sex, only horror. When approached by the aggressively-cheerful virgin neighbor, he tells her he has locked that part of himself away and does not intend to deal with it for a “very, very long time.” Ursula, on the other hand, is happy to help the virgin out. Tati seems to be cartoon-prince-sexual, so she’s straight, I guess? But her character has the androgynous goofiness of a clown. TV critic Emily Nussbaum traces Tati’s ancestry to Reverend Jim on Taxi and silent film stars; Tati also shares an energy with more recent types like the gender-ambiguous Ed from Cowboy Bebop, and Todd in Bojack Horseman. Like Todd, Tati seems to constantly wander into bizarre capers. Memorably, she ends up as part of a biker gang in one short, dreamlike tangent, which may or may not have actually happened — or could be a fortelling.

The overall aesthetic of the show, visually and comically, is full of deadpan wackiness and fabulous fashion; a sort of cousin to classic camp (such as the movies of Pedro Almodóvar) but a step to the left. There’s a dash of Wes Anderson in it, but without quite the level of over-seriousness; you can sense the connection to Armisen’s Portlandia, as well. However, compared with Portlandia, Los Espookys is mostly free of irony, much more humane, and feels a bit less like you’re trapped in a series of “And then???” jokes from Dude, Where’s My Car?

If we want to get a little nerdy for a second, there’s a meta-joke in this show about special effects and film. A lot of what the group makes for their clients, on a budget and usually limited time, turns out how you would expect it to turn out: thrown-together alien costumes; a sea monster straight out of a 1950s B movie. But they also create some horror-movie effects that are a little inexplicable, like a haunted mansion trick where the target falls through the middle of his bed and lands on an identical bed in an identical room. They argue about this particular effect, since it is difficult to pull off, but somehow they accomplish it in the end, despite a notable lack of holes sawed through ceilings. This is subtle fourth-wall-breaking, since it is believable that a group of amateur filmmakers could accomplish this effect using basic cinematic techniques, but it’s surreal that they did it in real life. It’s fun to ponder how Los Espookys is a show about special effects, with special effects, especially considering what kinds of effects the show uses and when. The show itself cultivates a charming, low-budget feel, despite its big-name comedians and prestige network status, in keeping with the creations of its characters. 

“That one is cursed. I’m just letting you know because some people don’t like that.”

Given all this, it’s no surprise that Los Espookys already has a cult following — plus a perfect critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes. The subtitles might put off some English-speakers (the show is mostly in Spanish), but then again, most of the people who are squeamish about media with subtitles would already be put off by any number of things about this show. The biggest head-scratcher for me was why this show is on HBO, of all places: the network of overserious violent dramas. Its trio of serious, accomplished co-creators must be key, plus Lorne Michaels’ involvement. In any case, I’ll take it. A second season is already in production (or was, before the pandemic); here’s hoping the might of HBO will ensure this show stays on the air as long as its creators wish it.

Los Espookys is whimsical, absurd fun for queer nerds. (Those of you who aren’t queer, or nerds, may also like the show, but I’ll leave that to you.) It’s a beautiful thing to have shows like this: light shows about fake dark stuff, to get us through the real-life darkness we need to get through. I eagerly await the next season.

Images courtesy of HBO

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