Los Espookys, a six-episode HBO comedy set in Mexico City, had its world premiere at the ATX Television Festival in Austin last week, ahead of its debut Friday night on HBO. And even for a festival-friendly audience, the pilot episode played like gangbusters (er, ghostbusters?). Despite being mostly presented in Spanish with English subtitles (this is inverted in scenes that take place in Los Angeles), with jokes very much drawn from Mexican and Latin cultures, the largely Anglo audience gave the screening big laughs for even its most subtle bits of humor.
The show is about a group of four very distinct twentysomethings who join together to create creepy special effects for parties such as a goth quinceañera that opens the pilot. The group includes Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco), a sweet, but gnarly-looking horror fan who looks like he could be Danny Trejo's grandson; Andrés (Julio Torres), a chocolate empire heir who insists he's got dark, mysterious origins; dental technician Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti) and her indestructible sister Tati (Ana Fabrega), who has a bunch of weird and hilarious odd jobs including Person Who Breaks In Shoes For Other People. They're joined by Renaldo's uncle Tico, played by show co-creator Fred Armisen, who may be the greatest valet parker in the world.
Through a combination of scheming and word-of-mouth, their skills get them a series of assignments, from faking an exorcism for a disgruntled priest to what Renaldo calls a "Standard inheritance scare." You know, the kind where a rich person dies and five people must survive a haunted night to win riches.
To call Los Espookys quirky and deadpan would be to sell it vastly short, but what works so well about it is a sustained and knowing tone that lands perfectly between the benign joke-lite world of, say, Portlandia and the laughing-at excess of something like Nacho Libre.
Much like HBO's other very oddball (and very funny) comedy Flight of the Conchords, Los Espookys arrives feeling fully formed, with effortlessly charming characters, a sharp comedic wavelength, and jokes that never feel like they're pushing too hard for laughs.
At a Q&A after the screening, writer and co-creator Torres said the show's humor, which sometimes references its own pauses and meta character beats, didn't need to go over the top. “The situation is funny by itself,” he said. “You don't have to be goofy to make it funny.”
Although the show was shot in Chile, Armisen says the inspiration for Los Espookys came from visits to Mexico City, where he became fascinated with Mexico's goth subculture and wanted to do not so much a horror series as a story about people who love horror movies. The show's other inspiration, which makes total sense once you've seen it, is that it's “The other side of Scooby Doo,” said Armisen.
The cast and creators say they got no resistance from HBO about the series being predominantly Spanish-language. Though HBO has produced original Spanish-language programming for its HBO Latino channel and for distribution overseas, this one is aimed squarely at its main channels and follows last year’s Italian-language My Brilliant Friend.
The show benefits greatly from tapping into Latin America's fascination with the supernatural, and the ways that magical realism (or at least depictions of magical realism) are woven into the culture. It's also a great hang, the kind of show that makes you want to spend hours and hours with these very fun characters.
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Omar L. Gallaga is a longtime technology and culture writer with bylines in The Wall Street Journal, NPR's All Tech Considered blog, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, CNN and the beloved TV websites Television Without Pity and Previously.tv. He's a former newspaper journalist who now lives in New Braunfels, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @OmarG.