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Julio Torres’ New HBO Comedy Is a Surreal Delight

Julio Torres’ New HBO Comedy Is a Surreal Delight

One of the more commonly overused words in entertainment marketing is “visionary.”

Whether or not a single consumer has ever watched a film or TV show because of an unsourced studio claim that the alleged auteur behind it was a “visionary,” the frequency with which the term is applied appropriately is very low. Wanna call Wes Anderson a visionary? Sure. Even people who hate the guy can’t deny the singularity of his approach. But just as frequently it’s tossed in the direction of, say, a guy whose vision was making a commercial with Antonio Banderas as a bee who hates snot. There needs to be a more thorough “visionary” vetting process.


The Bottom Line

Delivers laughs and big ideas.

Airdate: 11 p.m. Friday, June 7 (HBO)
Cast: Julio Torres, Martine, Tomas Matos, Joe Rumrill
Creator/Director: Julio Torres

That being said: Julio Torres is a visionary.

The former Saturday Night Live writer’s new HBO comedy Fantasmas doesn’t exactly confirm the absurdist promise of HBO’s Los Espookys and the recent feature Problemista mostly because those works were sufficiently fully realized to stand wholly on their own. But three makes a trend, and Fantasmas therefore proves that Torres has carved out a unique position within the mainstream, and all steps should be taken to keep David Zaslav from ever finding out that HBO continues letting him do this.

Despite its formal fragmentation, I’d argue that Fantasmas is actually a less overtly weird show than the glorious Los Espookys. But its mixture of childlike whimsy, confrontational irritation and unexpected hopefulness build to hilarity, oddity and a satisfying resolution by the end of six half-hour episodes.

It’s a trip.

Fantasmas stars Torres as Julio Torres, a dreamer and aspiring writer in a semi-dystopic semi-future dominated by pervasive branding and corporate control over all aspects of life, right down to “existence,” which requires a verified Proof of Existence ID card.

To trace the plot in the most literal way: Julio and his robot Bibo (voiced by Joe Rumrill) are about to be evicted from their apartment. In order to get a new apartment, he would have to show his Proof of Existence, which he refuses to get.

There are alternatives. He could get an exemption if he achieves a certain level of professional success, but his agent Vanesja (Martine Gutierrez, credited only as “Martine”) is actually just a performance artist pretending to be an agent. He also could utilize the services of Incorporeal, a company that promises to let you “Free yourself from the burden of having a body,” except that Julio spent all of his money on an oyster-shaped earring that disappeared at a sweaty nightclub.

With the help of Bibo, Vanesja (the “j” is silent) and rideshare renegade Chester (Tomas Matos), Julio goes on an odyssey to either prove his existence or cease to exist, all while wondering if the birthmark on his neck — it matches the earring that went missing — is actually a sign of skin cancer.

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Because that doesn’t quite sound like a substantive enough plot to carry a show, Fantasmas will be categorized in some circles as a “sketch show,” which isn’t entirely inaccurate. Through the course of the six episodes, we get glimpses of Julio’s big creative ideas (including one in which Steve Buscemi plays the frequently maligned letter “Q”); his dreams (including a recurring nightmare in which he, clad in a silk robe and a conical hat, can’t escape from a sealed room without a black puffer jacket); and elements of his life that may or may not be completely real (including the talking goldfish he enlists in the search for the missing earring). His journey also features encounters with different pieces of popular culture, like the apparently beloved sitcom MELF, featuring Paul Dano as the patriarch of a family that adopts a spaghetti-loving alien named MELF, and courtroom coverage of a trial in which the defendant is Santa Claus.

There are vignettes, flashbacks, shadow puppet animations, parody commercials and increasingly wild detours into the reality of this world, which seems to all be filmed on unfinished stages within a vast, dark warehouse. Is it Brechtian? Sure! It’s also Buñuelian, Kaufmanian (as in Charlie) and perhaps a little Maddinian (as in Guy). Sometimes the “bits” are hilarious, occasionally disturbing and in some cases poignant. And even the things that don’t cinch neatly together by the end are packed with ambitious intellectual and visual ideas — Boots Riley is probably Torres’ clearest contemporary peer — relayed with droll flair by Torres as writer-director for the full run.

It’s also an excuse for Torres to cobble together a guest ensemble that features multiple Oscar winners, much of the cast of Los Espookys, several members of Torres’ old SNL sphere and various figures with bona fides from alt-comedy, queer art and social-media influencing spaces. It is my hunch that absolutely every person appearing in Fantasmas is recognizable if you’re cool enough, and if you’re not — my own recognition rate was probably around 50 percent — everybody is identified at the end of each episode.

Torres isn’t the rangiest of actors, but his version of put-upon, sad-eyed confusion has its roots in the type of vintage, silent comedy that Fantasmas occasionally acknowledges. Of the regular supporting players, Martine is a standout, while Aidy Bryant, as a commercial pitchman for a line of dresses for toilets, and Dylan O’Brien, as the star of a TV soap whose name is too good a joke to ruin here, are scene-stealing guests. Don’t worry. I’ve spoiled far fewer of the cameos than, say, Wikipedia.

The truth is that there are stretches of Fantasmas where, for all its flights of fancy, the thing Torres is doing feels not exactly derivative, but behind the curve. How many shows now have done the “What would be the most ridiculous corporate brand to have its own streaming service?” joke? More than I can count and, in this case, going with “Zappos” is only slightly funny. How many parodies of the various Real Housewives franchises have we seen in recent years? Granted, Torres’ take is far more outlandish, conceptually loopy and star-studded than what viewers were treated to in, for example, an early episode of CBS’ Elsbeth, but it’s not a gag that will blow anybody away with its audacity. Even MELF, which I would happily watch as a full series, arrives at its “What if you exposed the dark undercurrent below the cheery surface of the TGIF sitcom?” premise a decade after Too Many Cooks.

Even when the material is familiar, though, Torres’ approach tends to be distinctive. The idea that, within our country’s ongoing immigration debate, the recognition of a person’s humanity can hinge on paperwork is one the Salvadorian-born creator/star is deeply familiar with. Also key to the show’s singularity is its trans-coding, appropriate for a narrative driven by the opportunity to slip the confines of one’s assigned body — and featuring a number of trans performers — without gender being at the center of the on-screen conversation. More directly addressed is Torres’ frustration at the specific and limited type of identity-driven stories Hollywood makes room for — a streaming executive (recognizable guest star not spoiled), for example, has no interest in his surrealism, but is eager to make something called How I Came Out to My Abuela.

The looseness, especially in the early episodes, belies how neatly Fantasmas resolves. Unlike Los Espookys, which had ample room for additional seasons when HBO pulled the plug, this feels like a complete story — one that, if you have a taste for Torres’ particular and peculiar vibe, takes its place as one of the best of the year so far.

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