Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco), the hero of HBO’s new comedy Los Espookys, is a study in contradictions. He dresses in Goth fashions and is obsessed with horror movies, but his most natural expression is a broad and welcoming smile. He starts up a business with best friends Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti) and Andrés (Julio Torres) to provide creature effects for specific situations — a struggling beach town in need of a sea monster to attract tourists, an aging priest hoping to stage an exorcism to upstage his dashing young colleague — but the primary goal seems to be helping people feel better about themselves, even if the chosen method is scaring them.
The pleasures of Los Espookys — created by Torres, Ana Fabrega and Fred Armisen — are less confounding but still complex. The series, set mostly in an unnamed Latin American country, primarily unfolds in Spanish with English-language subtitles; as fair turnabout, scenes where characters speak English get Spanish subtitles. Where the use of a foreign language tends to connote something highbrow (like, say, the Italian-set My Brilliant Friend, which HBO premiered late last year), Los Espookys is proudly silly and weird, even more than Armisen’s work on Portlandia or Documentary Now! The scares that Renaldo and his friends provide are frequently so low-fi that it’s a wonder they convince anyone, yet the series will casually send the vapid American ambassador (Greta Titelman) into a mirror dimension, or have Andrés haunted by a water demon promising to reveal the truth about his adoption into a family of wealthy chocolatiers.
Armisen has a recurring role as Renaldo’s Uncle Tico, who lives out his dream job as a valet parking attendant in Los Angeles. But the focus is on the three friends, plus Úrsula’s sister Tati (Fabrega, writing herself the show’s funniest role), an enthusiastic flake who interprets the world differently from those around her. (When her internet boyfriend turns out to be a handsome Spanish duke IRL, she feels betrayed because she thought his cartoon prince avatar was literally what he looked like.) Renaldo is the makeup expert, Úrsula the practical effects wizard, while Andrés mostly suggests ideas too impractical to pull off — which, more often than not, wind up working anyway, for reasons the show wisely opts not to explain.
Like the scares the team cooks up, Los Espookys feels simultaneously primitive and impossibly daring. Each successful scare leads to the next, even as Andrés debates whether to dump his Insta-famous boyfriend Juan Carlos (José Pablo Minor), Úrsula and Tati deal with a pyramid scheme executive (John Early) eager to collect a debt and Tico’s job introduces him to Renaldo’s favorite horror director (Carol Kane). Oh, and there’s a tabloid TV show whose vacuously beautiful hostess (Paloma Moreno Fernandez) hides mysteries herself, even as she unblinkingly reads teasers for segments like: “An interview with a child whose life has been saved five different times by the same dog; why he fears he’s become a burden to his dog.”
The show’s tone and sense of reality are so elastic, it’s unsurprising that Tati is played by one of its co-creators. But no matter how dryly weird things get, there’s a sense of camaraderie and optimism among the title characters that’s infectious. The line between comedy and horror is often so blurry as to be non-existent, and the two subjects match up in a very appealing way throughout Los Espookys.
Los Espookys premieres June 14th on HBO. I’ve seen all six episodes.