AUSTIN, Tex.—”When was the last time you ever saw a show like that?” ‘s Derek Waters asked the crowd after a world premiere screening at last week’s ATX TV Festival. “I’m honored to moderate this panel because what you just saw is groundbreaking.
To be clear, “never” might be the answer to Waters’ question. And this panel did center on ; it didn’t even feature another Comedy Central show. Instead, the host sat onstage alongside an all-Latinx main cast and head-writers group from what might be HBO’s next great comedy: a half-hour, Spanish-language, horror-adjacent series debuting tonight (11pm ET) called
At the most basic-level, follows four friends who form a business in an undisclosed Latin American country where occasional supernatural occurrences are an unacknowledged, normal part of daily life. After the friends successfully execute a spooky-themed Quinceañera for one of their younger sisters, wise Uncle Tico (Fred Armisen of ) offhandedly says their work looks so good, so full of passion that they should pursue it as a side hustle. (Wise Uncle Tico would know; he works as a valet.)
“All I ever wanted to do is park cars—now I do it full-time,” the valet legend tells Renaldo, the burgeoning group’s ringleader. “Horror is your parking cars.”
Our heroes Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco), his friends Andrés (writer Julio Torres) and Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), and her sister Tati ( writer Ana Fabrega) eventually take Tico’s advice and start a production company focused on creating horror scenarios for others. Need an exorcism at your church in order to take the shine off the hot, young priest, for instance? Who you gonna call? Los Espookys. From there, the show blends classic TV’s of-the-week adventures with the season-long evolutions of these friends, their business, and their understanding of life in their area. Amid all the beautiful bits, might somehow be the most poignant show about pursuing your creative passions or trying to find your professional footing as a young adult. (, with its ability to combine genitalia jokes with observations on grappling with identity in high school, might be a good reference point.)
Shout out to the stage crew
In one of my favorite aspects of each job our heroes take on tends to feature a few “behind the scenes” scenes of characters in a production area pulling ropes, adjusting knobs, and talking on headsets to their actors or stagehands. The final stunts audiences see toe the line brilliantly between good enough to spook or fool their targets but DIY-enough that you believe Los Espookys could’ve dreamt up and executed the plan. What ended up in the show doesn’t differ so much from what happened on set in that sense: during the show’s ATX TV Festival panel, for instance, Fabrega mentioned being strapped to platforms and spun in circles by VFX guys with pulleys.
“We made it very DIY so you could see the puppeteers at work,” she tells Ars. “When we’re shooting, there were definitely times we handed people things like, ‘OK, here’s your prop, go work.’ OK, I have this rope, so I guess I’ll pretend to tie.”
“We really did so much tying in the show,” Torres adds. “A ton of rope work.”
Along the way, the group’s action reflects the familiar struggles of any creatives (the show’s writing staff included): people forget their cues and stuff goes wrong that forces you to adjust on the fly. But the show must go on. “Around the time of the pitch, we had thought of this as the other side of —this is the part you don’t get to see,” Armisen explained during the panel discussion. “Yeah,” Fabrega chimed in. “ is for all the fans who asked, ‘Wait, but how do they do it?'”
Simply labeling “horror comedy” feels inaccurate, however. Though the show’s observations on the increasingly beloved genre couldn’t be better timed for this renaissance moment built on , , and a Blumhouse empire, the show has more in common with high-absurdity sketch than it does with or It feels closer to Tim Robinson’s new series () than Peele’s (), and these writers make no qualms about it.
“The trend right now is horror as a vehicle for scary social critique, like Jordan Peele’s work,” Torres tells Ars. “This is sillier than that—it has a silly sensibility.”
In this aspect, has a tone and comedic sensibility unlike much else on TV—it can at times evoke the naivety and obsession of , the awkwardness of or the core group rapport of . Characters have families with fortunes in chocolate-making but might also be formerly cursed orphans (“I like when the chocolate prince gets angry,” character Úrsula says in the premiere—you’ll soon feel similar). Laughs come equally often from extremely glossy lips as they do quips on the bleh-ness of Boingo Wi-Fi.
But again, this degree of silly doesn’t mean unclever. Torres’ character Andrés has a perfectionist-tinge when it comes to details of the various Los Espookys gigs, for instance. And his throwaway one-liners about how an heiress introduces a haunted night in a mansion or the accents used by creepy butlers will be “OMG, they see it, too!” moments for horror devotees. Most of those pitch-perfect observations grew out of Torres and co.’s personality and comedic style more so than any encyclopedic research of B-movie history.
“I love horror a lot, but [those moments] speak to Julio as a real person, too,” Armisen tells Ars. “He’s very detail-oriented. What you see in the scene is what he does on the show, too. It’s…”
“Small critiques,” Torres interjects.
“Which is good—it helped the show tremendously,” Armisen admits. Even within just the first three episodes Ars screened for this review, has too many too-perfect-it-hurts touches to shout ’em all out: platform combat boots worn by the group leader with a goth fashion sense; a town wanting to boost tourism through dark urban legend; motivations for revenge being as petty as ignored chain emails.
It’s not TV—it’s HBO
From to to , HBO has a rich history of comedies that run counter from contemporary sitcom peers on other networks. So even though the industry shift post-streaming has opened up the playing field for foreign-language shows ( had regular bits of Russian on FX, Spanish-heavy has been a big draw for Netflix, and go watch the German right now), perhaps ultimately found the most fitting home for this show after Armisen and co. pitched the idea around in 2017. HBO stood out to the writers at least partially because they never questioned the show’s setting or choice to be primarily in Spanish (only scenes in LA with Uncle Tico feature English, and everything gets subtitled). That setting and sensibility remains core to
“I always wanted to do something spooky and in Spanish, and I always wanted to play a valet guy—they seem so fast and focused,” Armisen said during the show’s 2019 ATX TV Festival panel. “I love horror movies, but I also love people’s love of horror movies—it’s like its own genre. So I did this trip to Mexico City and saw firsthand there’s a real scene, not just horror but goth, and I wanted to capture that.” Armisen also told Ars the horror scene in Mexico felt distinct and unaffected from those fan communities in the US, and tries to reflect that.
“[The show is] horror in a warm, cartoony sort of way,” as Torres put it during the ATX TV panel. “My mom used to watch Brazilian telenovelas, which are different than Mexican ones in that there’s a lot of magical realism. I remember one where there’s one character that’s in love with the Moon, and the whole nation was like, ‘Ooo, will he meet the Moon?’ He’d tie a chain around his waist, because he’d float towards the moon during full moons. I love that.”
The first season lasts just six episodes, with each one we previewed being quite tight. Similar to something like S2 or , that time commitment feels refreshing after years of slogging through 90-plus minute or sessions.
And the show’s look and feel only add to its overall enjoyment. is shot in Chile in collaboration with the Oscar-winning production house, Fabula, and it has a meticulousness to set design and shot framing that might evoke Wes Anderson. As opposed to a traditional horror score with sweeping orchestrations and a bit of theremin, this show’s music relies instead on minimalistic electronic arrangements to further lean into its offbeat ethos.
If proves to be as “groundbreaking” to a wider audience as it was for Waters—and to state it plainly, this show is definitely good and refreshing—HBO couldn’t have found it at a better time. Both television comedy and HBO overall may be entering a state of flux as summer 2019 rolls around. Some of the most reliably funny and beloved comedies of recent years (, , , heck even ) will end or have ended in the next year. And the same goes for tentpole HBO shows like and With the real world continuing to be scary enough, most of us need an escape and/or a laugh semi-regularly. Luckily, these self-proclaimed horror technicians seem up to the task.