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Why Isn’t Every Show Like Los Espookys?

Photo: HBO

There’s an old joke: We’ll know we’ve accomplished true representation, whatever that is, when creators from marginalized backgrounds finally get the chance to make truly mediocre art. As bad as the high-profile white artist who recently flubbed yet another at-bat after a long string of attempts at, say, a Harry Potter follow-up or another Transformers movie. Until people of color get their Crimes of Grindelwald, everyone’s gonna have to deal with us beating this drum over and over again.

But as amusing as it can be to needle the entertainment industry over its endemic whiteness and heteronormativity, the truth is: I am tired of writing about this shit. I have other things to think about, and I’d rather put this energy into daydreaming about potential Scooby-Doo spin-offs. This is why I love Los Espookys, the HBO comedy about a bunch of Latinx kids who band together to start a business where they create custom horror events for people who need them.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, in one episode, a priest wants to stage an exorcism so people think he is better than a younger, more handsome priest. In another, an insomniac woman needs to be convinced she’s dreaming so maybe she will actually fall asleep. Sometimes people need to be haunted and the spirits beyond cannot always deliver. So Los Espookys do it for them.

My affection for Los Espookys has only grown since it aired last summer, because as the entertainment industry has yet another round of conversation about representation in media, it’s a show that arrived mostly over it. The expected response is a hand-wringing cry for entertainment in the service of making white people feel either guilty or accomplished for listening to voices that they typically ignore. Los Espookys is unburdened with such urgency. It’s Latinx and queer as hell, sure, but mostly uninterested in saying so.

“When people want to see themselves on screen, I don’t think they want queer people to explain to straight people what queerness is,” Los Espookys star and showrunner Ana Fabrega told me in a call with fellow showrunner, star, and co-creator Julio Torres. “I think they just want to see them exist and show parts of them that are not their sexuality, because everyone is more than their gender orientation or expression. On our show, we have characters that are queer and you don’t have to dwell on it because there’s more to the characters than their sexuality.”

“Characters on a straight show don’t need to do any explaining, right?” Torres adds. “There’s no little line at the beginning of a scene to explain that someone is straight, so that when the guy holds the girl’s hand, you’re not thrown off by it. Whiteness never has to be explained. We’ve accepted it as the default. And so, this show — a weird show where those things are part of it —  it’s not going to be explained in a TED talky sort of way. It’s just gonna happen.”

Did I mention it’s not in English? You’ll manage.

Los Espookys delights in the sort of breezy surety its whiter sister shows enjoy on HBO, from Girls to Barry or Silicon Valley, even if it has a fraction of the marketing budget. Its existence on the only remaining premium network where every show is deemed worthy of consideration by mainstream media is akin to an act of reverse gentrification. It’s a deeply funny meta-joke: All you have to do to get white critics to pay attention is put three little letters next to a show, the same way international cuisines get more attention when you make the portions smaller and add five dollars to the price. It would feel condescending if Los Espookys didn’t run buck wild, making a show that doesn’t seem terribly concerned with being palatable to white people, even as it takes their money.

Granted, the show’s placement is an act of disruption enabled by institutional stalwarts like comedy tastemaker Lorne Michaels, and the glow-up that comes with the involvement of popular Saturday Night Live alums like Fred Armisen and Julio Torres — each the rare Latinx artist to serve as performer and writer on the show, respectively.

That’s not to say there isn’t tension behind the breeziness. Every character in Los Espookys is in danger of being pulled away to a more mundane life that was decided for them by someone else. Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco), the sweet goth teen at the heart of the show, can barely pay his bills and is constantly pressured to get a real job. Andres (Torres), the morbid free spirit who believes his birth to be an omen of ill fortune, is burdened by the expectations of his wealthy chocolatier parents. Tati (Fabrega), one of the best airheads ever depicted on television, has all sorts of ideas for her life (up to and including marrying a cartoon prince) and is constantly confronted by people who want to bring her down to Earth.

“All the characters have all these other reasons as to why they shouldn’t dedicate their time and their effort into their weird … business-that’s-not-quite-a-business?” Torres says. “This show, at its core, is a show about friendship and collaboration and following what makes you happy. It just happens to be, for these people, not a band or making movies. It’s this weird business about making horror for people.”

I often consider the show’s setting: A fictional Latin-American nation where the surreal sits comfortably alongside the mundane. In most cases, it’s for the purpose of facilitating jokes, like Andres’ communication with a supernatural water spirit, or Tati explaining her bizarre behavior by saying she experiences time in a non-linear fashion. Maybe these things are true, maybe they aren’t — but does it matter? The Latin diaspora doesn’t have to explain itself to the audience, even when it’s on a magical realist kick. (We beat David Lynch to his own schtick by several decades.) You want to know what’s going on? You do the work. Or better yet, just trust us.

“People think people need answers, and they don’t,” Fabrega says. “You have to assume your audience, if they’re on board, you can throw things at them that they’re not caught off guard by. You don’t have to hold their hand throughout the episode. You can take them along with you.”

It is not stressed often enough how much marginalized artists just want to goof off. To make the big ridiculous action movie, the problematic fave, the heist movie, the caper, the murder mystery, the musical. Los Espookys is a show I want everyone to love because I believe everyone wants to see their version of Los Espookys: a show made by people who obviously inhabit specific cultural spaces and have clear political leanings, but also passionately care about making deeply silly work.

“I’m very happy that the show is unburdened by rules and a lot of the expectations that would come by being a show created by queer Latinx people,” Torres said. “It’s not a show that’s trying to educate an audience about being any of those things. It’s just a show about a few silly people, made by a couple of silly people who also happen to be those things. And made a show that was very blissful and unpreoccupied with those sorts of things.”

This is what Los Espookys means to me. In a world where so many are fighting just for the space to have their existence acknowledged, it’s an expression of what I want for Latinidad in art. Or what anyone from a marginalized background would want: the chance to do something strange and silly with friends, to not be defined by the void in popular culture I fill by default. Too often have I been asked to use my words because of the indigenous blood that darkens my skin and thickens my hair. The calls to make weird, kitschy horror for people who need it? Those are much rarer.

Why Isn’t Every Show Like Los Espookys?