The spirit of Scooby-Doo is alive and well in Los Espookys, though it’s more like Scooby-Doo in reverse. Remember how the Mystery Machine gang would stay overnight in a house or castle or island resort that was supposedly haunted, only to eventually uncover that the weird goings-on were hoaxes done with wires, mirrors, costumes, etc.? This half-hour HBO series from Fred Armisen, Ana Fabrega, and Julio Torres (who also write and co-star) concerns a group of 20-somethings led by a horror-movie obsessive named Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco), who stage fake supernatural events for clients. The first episode, airing this Friday night, starts with a bloody-themed quinceañera, overseen by Renaldo, that catches the attention of a priest, who wants to preside over an exorcism to show up a hip younger priest who’s just arrived at his parish. The assignment has a whiff of Max Fischer–ian ingenuity — better not to describe the actual exercise, except to say that the group does a lot with a little — and the assignments get increasingly complex from there, even as the story and characterizations remain disarmingly straightforward.
Velasco’s Renaldo is an engaging lead character, an instigator-ringleader with a can-do spirit and a toothy grin. He’s joined by Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), a dentist who refuses to smile; Andrés (Torres), an orphan who’s in line to inherit a chocolate fortune that knowingly infringes on Willy Wonka’s intellectual property; and Tati (Fabrega), a game-for-anything gal Friday type who is first seen at the aforementioned parish, manually spinning the blades of a fan to cool the priest in his office.
Although the story eventually moves beyond its repetitious structure — becoming more invested in the dynamics of a group of oddballs forming a makeshift family — it’s really the wry comic tone, lived-in comic performances, and quotable dialogue that make the series worth watching. Like FX’s vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, which would form a perfect one-hour comedy block with this series if they were on the same network, it’s the low-stakes nature of the venture that sets it apart. It’s as if the Little Rascals had grown up and begun speaking fluent Spanish (most of the series is done en español with English subtitles). The only thing missing is a lovable pooch with a ring around one eye.
From the jump, Los Espookys assures us that nothing it depicts is meant to be taken literally, including its location; although it was originally announced as being set in Mexico City, it was shot in Chile, and the scripts never pull the trigger on precisely where the events are occurring, except to establish that it’s not in Los Angeles. (L.A. is a presence, though: Renaldo’s uncle Tico, a virtuoso parking attendant played by Armisen, works there.) The unnamed setting feels like a knowingly vague construct, maybe befitting the origins of the show’s creators: Armisen is half-Venezuelan, Torres an immigrant from El Salvador, and Fabrega of Panamanian descent. The entire series has a tall-tale vibe. Characters are not merely defined by their obsessions, but in such a way that we’re assured that entire, thriving subcultures exist to service and test them. (A flashback to Tico’s pursuit of the title of World’s Greatest Valet Parker implies that there are lots of people who want to watch virtuoso displays of car-parking.) Typical of the show’s droll absurdism, Renaldo’s origin story is based around his being teased as a kid because his first name didn’t have a Y in it. To the show’s credit, he recounts this suffering and transcendence with such conviction that we don’t merely believe that Renaldos without Y’s are persecuted, but root for him to overcome such a grave burden, and become the greatest practitioner of fake supernatural occurrences the world has ever seen.