In the long lineup of big budget dramas like Game of Thrones that has made HBO shows into must watch programming (if you can steal someone’s HBO Now password), it is surprising to see the humble success of Los Espookys, which surprised and delighted critics and new viewers in 2019. Written and created by Ana Fabrega, Julio Torres, and Fred Armisen, (who play Tati, Andrés, and Uncle Tico respectively), the show centers on four friends living in what we presume to be Mexico City who, despite the pressures of their everyday lives, create a group that delivers staged “espantos,” or scares, for a variety of clientele. Though the first season is quite short, the familial bond between the characters develops naturally and is both delightful and surprising to watch.
At the beginning of the show, the characters are at a crossroads in their lives, stuck between what they want to do with their lives and what they have to do to maintain the status quo of what is expected of them: pragmatic Úrsula works as a dental hygienist, mysterious Andrés must maintain his relationship with fiancee Juan Carlos for the benefit of his family’s chocolate business, Tati seeks out never ending gigs to make money (she “breaks in” people’s shoes for them by walking all over the city and acts as a human clock for the community), and sweet goth Renaldo dreams of making his group, “Los Espookys” a full-time project.
The group of friends in the series are drawn together by their love of the strange and scary, by creating bizarre, “spooky” experiences for their clients. They set up a mystery dinner for one client in order to scare a young man out of his own inheritance in the “haunted” house of his father, pulling from expected haunted house tropes while also scaring the young man out of the house by creating an effect that makes him fall through his bed as though he is falling through a portal. Upon the request of the mayor of a small coastal town, the group creates an urban legend of a sea monster (Tati dressed up in papier-mâché tentacles) to boost tourism for the town. Much of the delight found in the show is how cheesy some of their effects are juxtaposed with surprisingly complex scares and how they grapple with their craft. As they gain more clients, each member of the group finds ways to lend their skills to make the group a real business-Renaldo’s skills for creating effects, Tati’s character creations, Andrés’ ambitious ideas for new scares and Úrsula’s pragmatism that ensures that the clients actually pay them.
The characters are fun to watch not just because of their fast-paced, deadpan humor that works in two languages, but because their struggles against societal structures and capitalistic expectations make them very relatable characters (especially to many Latinx viewers) while also managing to surprise us. Tati’s good natured naiveté and entrepreneurial spirit causes her to be taken in by the predatory company, Hierbalite (a not so subtle spoof of Herbalife, a notorious pyramid scheme known for targeting Latinx families). It is only through the intervention of the group and Tati’s own strange ingenuity that she is able to extricate herself from debt to the company and the threats from Hierbalite’s CEO, who collects debts in person. Her sister Úrsula is consistently disrespected at her job by the dentist she works for, and Los Espookys provides her an outlet, and eventually an out to leave this oppressive position for work with her group that can pay her what she needs.
Andrés plays an interesting foil to the rest of the group, who are from lower income families, as the most privileged member of the group because he is heir to his adopted parent’s chocolate company. He is often called the “principe de chocolate,” by his friends, but he is also under pressure to marry his boyfriend Juan Carlos, who he feels lukewarm about, especially because Juan Carlos and his parents pressure him to end his participation in Los Espookys to take over the family business. Andrés’ closeness with his friends allows him to explore his mysterious past as an orphan taken in by nuns, and his magical powers that allow him to control water (never fully explained), making him drawn to the sea and a magical water spirit with a penchant for blockbuster films. It is only through his friends’ support that Andrés is able to discover the truth of his past (or at least part of it) and to extricate himself from the life that afforded him comfort, but limited his closeness to the magical and the ephemeral.
Renaldo’s struggles are his needs to focus on his passions. There is a scene in which the group is trying to get US visas to travel to LA so that Renaldo can help create a comeback film for his horror idol, Bianca Nova (played by the wonderful Carol Kane) from an ignorant, over the top blond US diplomat. In exchange for the visas, the diplomat asks the group to create a trick in which she will “disappear” behind a mirror so that she can go on a vacation. Andrés, distracted by his own journey of self-discovery, purchases a cursed mirror from a friend and accidentally gets her stuck within the borders of a mirror land purgatory where she wanders, forced to contend with her own reflection who follows her around the mirror land. The show holds up a literal mirror to the US immigration system here in a way that is both absurd and biting, highlighting the very real obstacles that Renaldo faces to achieve his dream of working with Bianca Nova. The group unites in the weird, and are ultimately only able to work together with when their passion, talent and pragmatism work together, and this is how they are able to define their own lives in the face of capitalism, imperialism and the monotonous and oppressive disappointments of everyday life. This feels right for a show interested in depicting the fluidity and variety of Latinx lives.
While the Latinidad that the show depicts focuses more specifically on some Mexican and Mexican American experiences, the characters are given room to grow, to change and reveal parts of themselves in ways that are treated as natural. Both Andrés and Úrsula are queer characters, but their sexualities are not the focal point of who they are. Renaldo is more interested in honing his skills as a creator of horror than he is on moving out of his mother’s house or finding a girlfriend. Tati reveals at the end of the series that despite seeming as though she has her head in the clouds, she is really experiencing time as a fluid rather than a linear entity. What might be considered different or transgressive about them all is treated as normal, throwing into relief what is really strange or problematic about their lives-that they should have to live any other way than who they are. Through their work, their scares, the group strives to discover their best selves, the selves who long to create and work together; The friends do what they love and make a living doing it.
Most HBO viewers might be coming to this show because of Fred Armisen’s credits as a comedian and writer. Perhaps that’s the best way to get people in the door. However, while non-Spanish speaking viewers will have to read subtitles, and might not fully understand the humor of specifically Mexican references, the characters and their care for one another make it impossible not to find something to love about this show whether the viewer understands Spanish or not. The show depicts Latinx characters taking ownership over their lives to live authentically, which feels radical at a time in which Latinx people in the US are regularly targeted for simply existing in public spaces, even in public imagination. The allure of the spooky, or the supernatural, is the friend’s familial bond.
The show has been greenlit for a second season, and I can’t wait to see how Los Espookys continues to grow, and get weirder from here.
Leticia Urieta is proud Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets, Lumina, The Offing, Kweli Journal, Medium, Electric Lit and others. Her chapbook, The Monster is out now from LibroMobile Press. She is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.