'Los Espookys': TV Review

Muy funny! Un poquito scary!

Fred Armisen's new HBO horror comedy has a title that's fun to say and a droll sense of humor likely to make it a cult favorite.

If I'm being completely honest, I would probably give HBO's new Spanish-language horror-comedy Los Espookys a positive review just for giving me the opportunity to type or say "Los Espookys" over and over again. It's a title that's supposed to make you smile, and then its evolution and alteration over the course of the series is supposed to make you laugh.

Fortunately, the reasons for amusement with Los Espookys extend well beyond the title. The half-hour series, from creators Julio Torres, Ana Fabrega and Fred Armisen, is a droll delight, a low-key and absurdist romp in that Baskets or What We Do in the Shadows vein of shows that absolutely won't tickle everybody — the unconventional Friday 11 p.m. time slot acknowledges that — but will probably generate fierce devotion among the audience able to communicate on its strange wavelength.

Los Espookys is set in a Latin American country that probably has some superficial similarities with Mexico, but isn't really Mexico. It's more a geographical construct born of magical realism, only it's nightmarish realism? Or horror realism? Or magical horrorism? Dunno. Series director Fernando Frias does a good job balancing rundown urban spaces, lavish post-colonialist mansions and an affection for the horror films of the '70s and '80s and, in fleeting moments, Jodorowsky-esque absurdism.

Bernardo Velasco stars as Renaldo, a devotee of scary movies shaped by a lifetime of feeling like an outsider because his name is "Renaldo" and not "Reynaldo." Renald's best friends are Andres (Torres), the heir to a chocolate fortune haunted by his origins as an orphan, Ursula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), a dentist defiantly unwilling to smile herself, and Ursula's sister Tati (Fabrega), a kooky free spirit working an endless series of odd jobs as she looks for her place in the world. Oh, and Renaldo's uncle (Armisen's Tico) is up in Los Angeles, where his status as a legendary valet parking attendant brings him into contact with some of Renaldo's idols.

As the series opens, Renaldo and his friends have just orchestrated a fabulous and gory quinceañera that attracts the attention of a local priest who hires them to mount an exorcism so that he can stop being upstaged by the parish's hunky new priest. Soon, Los Espookys have become an established "horror group," using makeup and theatrical effects in a number of situations that will be familiar to genre fans, like a traditional "inheritance scare" — where five strangers have to spend the night in an allegedly haunted house in order to inherit the estate — and to evoke the supernatural to boost a tourist-starved seaside town.

Primarily, Los Espookys approaches the genre — either horror or Scooby-Doo-adjacent mystery — with tongue firmly in cheek. If the conceit of Scooby-Doo is that a group of amateur gumshoes is ever unraveling these ultra-elaborate schemes with supernatural trappings, the conceit of Los Espookys is that those ultra-elaborate schemes with supernatural trappings are too complicated to be mounted by Old Man Withers, so what if coordinating fake hauntings and mythological beasts was somebody's calling?

For each of the characters, the group is treated as the whimsical dream getting in the way of more traditional vocations or interests — be it Andres' involvement in the family's copyright-infringing candy empire, Renaldo's constant rebuffing of the attractive virgin next door who badly wants to have sex with him or the respectability of teeth for Ursula. As Armisen's Tico puts it, "All I ever wanted to do was park cars. Now I do it full-time. This horror business is your parking cars!"

On the other hand, I love that although Los Espookys is about the illusion of horror as a business, it's a world in which satanic possession seems fairly reasonable, enchanted mirrors are a fact of life and the sentence "I just met a parasitic demon that lives inside me, but I'm free now" can be uttered in total earnestness and candor. Oh, and wait until you see that parasitic demon and hear what she wants.

The show is perfectly balanced between taking viewers behind the curtain and remaining open to unexplainable possibilities. The use of Spanish, and Spanish subtitles in English dialogue scenes, is a part of a context that's played in very interesting ways — Andres' relationship to cookie heir Juan Carlos (Jose Pablo Minor) takes on different shading in a predominantly Catholic Latin American country — and then sometimes it's just another level of humor, like how gleeful repetition will teach viewers to say "Naked but no genitals!" en Español in a late episode.

With the situations hewing toward the outlandish, the cast tends toward the minimalistic and understated. Torres, most recently a scribe on Saturday Night Live, brings a writerly precision to Andres' deadpan, never settling for simply "flat" when he can provide an undertone of incredulity or contempt to his delivery. I have to assume that Fabrega named her character partially as a nod to Jacques Tati, because she has the sad-yet-hopeful eyes of a silent film star and an open willingness to engage in physical comedy. Tati is a mixture of so many ridiculous and incongruous traits and reactions and they end up making sense, somewhat at least, by the end of the first season.

With Ciangherotti also tending toward the withering or sardonic, Velasco gets to compensate with a performance that's open and enthusiastic to round out the core quartet. Kudos to Armisen for playing Tico as reasonably straight-faced, even when he's exhibiting his vaunted parking skills.

Though Los Espookys initially feels like it's a clever-but-small idea, the story keeps opening up with vibrant and well-played supporting characters, including the aggressively girlie U.S. ambassador to this country (Greta Titelman, adding layers beyond a dumb blonde stereotype) and Carol Kane in a part I don't want to spoil (and one of Kane's comedy contemporaries I'd also just as soon keep under wraps). What started out as a show I watched because I dug the title quickly became a fun surprise of a series I wished I could keep watching beyond these initial six episodes.

Cast: Ana Fabrega, Julio Torres, Cassandra Ciangherotti, Bernardo Velasco, José Pablo Minor, Fred Armisen
Creator: Fred Armisen & Ana Fabrega & Julio Torres
Director: Fernando Frias
Premieres: Friday, 11 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)