Los Espookys: A Beautifully Ridiculous Experience Hiding Bold Sociopolitical Themes
To be concise and to the point, Los Espookys is one of if not the most unique and creative shows produced this year. Created by comedians Fred Armisen, Ana Fabrega and Julio Torres, and produced by SNL’s Lorne Michaels for HBO, this show manages to perfectly tie together some genuinely stunning visuals with excellently crafted and hilarious writing while maintaining a sense of strangeness and surreality.
The show focuses on a group of friends (Renaldo, Andrés, Úrsula and Tati) who start a business engineering spooks, horror, and scares for a variety of clients who each have their own bizarre reasons for hiring the group, all set against the backdrop of a strange and dream-like unspecified Latin American country. This makes for a fantastic premise which allows the plot to move in totally unpredictable directions (and when I say unpredictable, I mean ‘discovering a parasitic demon inside you whose sole motivation is to watch The King’s Speech with Colin Firth’-type unpredictable).
Los Espookys is best described, in terms of style, as magic realist, following in the tradition of great Latin American writers like Jorge Luis Borges (author of The Aleph) and Gabriel García Márquez (author of One Hundred Years of Solitude). It features beautiful sets, costume design and characters: the laboratory in Episode 5 with its bulky retro computers and equipment lit by the glow of an electric purple lamp, the Clinica de Sueño drenched in pastel blues accompanied by raw umber wood panelling, the U.S. ambassador Melanie Gibbons’ pink-emblazoned getup, the strangeness of even the smaller characters like Pony, the owner of a mirror shop who also sells ecstasy on the side; it’s impossible to summarise the delightful strangeness and aesthetic brilliance of the show in a single review.
This alone should be reason enough to watch it, but if you’re still unconvinced, the show also manages to tackle some extremely pertinent sociopolitical issues in extremely unique ways. The supernatural and surreal elements of Los Espookys give the show a vehicle to explore and critique a variety of problems facing both Latin American countries and society in general from a unique angle.
Some of these are obvious; the character of Ambassador Melanie Gibbons (and by extension the US Embassy), for example, is laden with criticism of both the current state of American politics and the American capitalist influence on Central and South America. Gibbons’ office is filled to the brim with American iconography and memorabilia, all recoloured in hot pink, as are the walls of her office and her clothing. Everything is unbearably tacky and sickeningly sweet; every item on her desk looks like a cheaply manufactured collectible marketed in some sort of Trump-themed loot crate (not to give Paul Joseph Watson any ideas). The anti-capitalist sentiment is further reinforced when in episode 4 Gibbons is seen choosing a large array of building locations in Central America for the construction of American chain stores like Dunkin’, all enacted on a map in which the US is labelled ‘The United States of America’ and Mexico is labelled ‘Everything Else’. Melanie Gibbons is shown to be not only politically inept but also totally ignorant of the issues facing South America that her government is responsible for; during an interview, she is asked a question regarding the border crisis to which she confusedly explains she thought that the interview would just be a Spanish language version of ‘What’s in My Bag?’ Gibbons’ social media team are equally as bad, with Embassy Official Alexandra explaining that they only got the job because ‘their parents have really good connections’; they seem to be totally unaware of not only the harm their government is doing but also the concept of harm itself, with one member of her team accidentally cutting his finger and describing bleeding as when ‘the red comes out’.
While the critique of American politics is mostly reserved for use via the Embassy and Melanie Gibbons, the critique of capitalism (specifically American capitalism) does not end there. A significant part of the plot of the series is the introduction of a multilevel marketing scheme called ‘Hierbalite’, an obvious parody of the real life pyramid scheme Herbalife. In the show, Hierbalite’s face is Mark Stevens, a parody of real Herbalife CEO Michael Johnson (the only evidence I have for this is that they both have similarly milquetoast names). While on the surface he appears to be a typically boring but charismatic suburban one-percent-er, Mark Stevens is in fact an evil monster who personally handles the collection of debt that those targeted by his company owe him because ‘chasing down people like you is what I live for’. The bane that Hierbalite is presented to be, while humorously cartoonish in presentation, bears shocking similarities to the operation of the real Herbalife and the effect that it has on the Latinx community. According to the company, around 60% of their profits come from Latinx people, with Herbalife targeting the economically vulnerable and selling them a phony dream of easy riches and quite literally ‘getting-rich-quick’. According to show creator Ana Fabrega in an interview with The Wrap, her own mother became embroiled in Herbalife and, as a result, she saw first hand the effects; as she puts it, those who are ensnared are being spun a tale of the idealised ‘American Dream’, when in reality only the uppermost levels of the corporation profit. The whole operation is effectively a cult dedicated to gaining capital, with foundations built on the exploitation and abuse of the Latinx population.
There are also, of course, more subtle general social themes. The inclusion of openly queer characters, for example, is fantastic, not only because queer representation is always good in a show but also because the show doesn’t beg for a pat on the back because of it (perhaps because one of the show’s co-creators, Julio Torres, is openly gay? I’m just saying Hollywood, maybe you’d stop getting roasted on twitter for tokenism and faux representation if you’d actually hire LGBTQ people, ya fuckin’ morons).
Not only this, but the show also deals with sexism in a consistent and clear way; the show, despite its magic realist and surreal qualities, still manages to be more grounded than several other shows that have attempted social commentary that I can think of (*cough* Black Mirror *cough*). In episode 3, for example, Úrsula is told by her boss that she doesn’t look happy enough and that she should ‘smile more’. The show, as if to scream ‘PAY ATTENTION TO THIS’, sets this scene in Úrsula’s workplace, a dental clinic, where large photos and x-rays of teeth adorn every single wall. In episode 6, Úrsula again experiences sexism in the workplace; while auditioning to fill in the roll of the famous news presenter Gregoria Santos, she is probed with a series of invasive questions including ‘what is your bra size?’ and told to pose while bending forward and pouting (which she, of course, refuses to do). Again, the bizarreness of the world and characters that make up this show work completely to the benefit of its critiques, giving the show enough wit and lightness that you’re never burdened by reminders of how awful the real world is while still shining light on issues of which most of us are ignorant.
There is still so much I could write about this show (I haven’t even touched on the subtle criticisms of the Catholic Church sprinkled throughout), which should really serve as a testament to how unbelievably fantastic it is. I could write a 20 page thesis on the brilliance of this show, but I suspect it would be better if you just watched it. Los Espookys seems to have flown under the radar for most people, which is a massive shame given how much everyone’s missing out on. Los Espookys is available on HBO Go for streaming and (hopefully) soon on box set. Los Espookys is a viewing experience like no other. If you have the time, give it a watch, and even if you don’t, make time; there’s no doubt in my mind that you won’t regret it.