One of my favorite questions when beginning the journey of a new TV show is asking: Who is this for? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself less interested in what a show is attempting to say and more fascinated by who it’s attempting to speak to. It’s not so much about the message for me, but its direction.
For a long time-too long, really-the answers were predictably anemic, and lacked contrast. In more recent years, the responses have broadened fantastically. Sometimes the answer is rooted in gender ( Mad Men, Girls), other times it’s overlooked communities ( Queen Sugar, Pose). More and more, as the apocalypse looms closer, the answer has pointed to sci-fi enthusiasts ( Black Mirror, Stranger Things), and even millennials who work, or aspire to work, in print journalism ( The Bold Type). If we’re lucky, which is not as infrequent as one might assume-there’s a ton of good TV buried in the streaming sewage-the answers overlap, and we get a series like Ramy or Jane the Virgin or Killing Eve.
And yet, what I actually look forward to the most is stumbling upon a show that I don’t easily identify with, and still finding a place within it. I can hear the chorus now: But isn’t that the true hallmark of a great TV show!? Isn’t that the point of TV? Not always. For me, that’s what makes the Fred Armisen HBO horror vehicle Los Espookys especially vibrant. It’s got a mind and attitude all its own, and it doesn’t care if you refuse to meet it where it’s at; it’s going to do what it’s going to do.
If you’re brave enough to cross that bridge, to trust the show’s instincts across its stellar and wonderfully peculiar six-episode season, you’ll stumble upon a vast wonderland of phony sea monsters, possessed TV broadcasters, an “Hierbalite” pyramid scheme, haunted mirrors, and a sassy water spirit obsessed with The King’s Speech.
Los Espookys is a Spanish-language series focused on a quartet of self-described “horror technicians” who live in an unnamed Latin American country. With a shared love for the grotesque, they run a business staging creepy stunts for an eccentric group of local clients ranging from a research scientist who’d rather run a film review website to a mayor attempting to boost tourism. (The town’s previous attraction was an owl with a wig, but the wig got lost because, as the mayor spins it, “it was not well secured with a bobby pin.”)
In the debut episode, one of the series’s strongest, there’s an upstart priest in town and Father Francisco is losing the congregation’s favor. Baptisms have plummeted; prayer requests have too. There’s generally not much use for him anymore-“no one needs me,” he says. To reignite his star power (and because “the Devil, unfortunately, hasn’t possessed any of the orphans”) he calls on Los Espookys to help him stage a fake exorcism, what’s considered “a boutique request these days.” It’s the kind of work that becomes emblematic of the group’s gonzo pursuits throughout the season.”We’re not Ghostbusters,” their business cards exclaim, “it’s different.”
Equally outfitted by four eccentrics, Los Espookys is led by the goth-loving Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco in an ace performance), who wears all-black ensembles and speaks with a warm rasp. There are sisters Ursula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), a tortured artist-cum-dental-assistant, and Tati (Ana Fabrega), the group’s unofficial test dummy and lovable dunce. Andr´és ( wunderkind Saturday Night Live writer Julio Torres) is the most fleshed-out character of the horror troop. He has electric-blue hair and is next in line to inherit his family’s chocolate empire (all verging on hilarious copyright infringement, signature chocolates include “Mickey Moose” and “Harvey Potters”). His boyfriend Juan Carlos, something of a telenovela archetype, is heir to a cookie fortune. A possible alliance between both families becomes the twisted fixation of Andrés’ parents, despite his extracurricular interests, one of which includes a quest into his past and the night he was found at the orphanage. Did I mention Andrés was adopted? Cue the parasitic demon drama!
On the periphery is Renaldo’s Uncle Tico (Fred Armisen), who helps to both propel and glue the series together in fascinating style. He’s something of a master valet in Los Angeles and is “the only person in the world who can park two cars at the same time.” It’s Tico who inspires Renaldo to start Los Espookys. Armisen created the show along with Fabrega and Torres, and said that after visiting Mexico City some years back on a research trip, he became enthralled with the local goth subculture and wanted to develop a series that embodied a similar punk-horror ethos.
That’s really the gift of Los Espookys-it colors outside the lines, it speaks its own language. The show sidesteps all the traditional framing viewers have come to expect of TV, even as streaming platforms have widened access to disparate scenes and communities. Like the best of TV in the last half-decade, Los Espookys soars because it stays true to what it set out to be. It’s intimate, adorably strange, meticulous in its oddball humor, and unburdened by the pressure of the audience. (The bulk of the series is performed in Spanish with English subtitles.)
In asking Who is a TV show for? I’m really trying to pick at a larger question: Who do we deem worthy of speaking to? And why is that? What does it indicate about the industry, or even about our personal tastes? “Life is full of unexpected wonders,” Renaldo says in a late-season episode when a dream opportunity goes south. The same is true of the show: It’s a small, unanticipated marvel. Los Espookys is proof that when the gatekeepers do in fact take a risk, when they deem a bizarre Spanish-language horror-comedy worthy of a mass audience, we aren’t simply surprised by what we hear in return, but are also enriched by it.