Television Doesn’t Get Much Wilder Than Julio Torres’ ‘Fantasmas’

The ‘SNL’ alum’s new comedy is part sitcom, part sketch and all wild swings
Television Doesn’t Get Much Wilder Than Julio Torres’ ‘Fantasmas’

For most of the 2010s, as streaming platforms proliferated, cable networks produced their own original programming and the demand for TV shows exploded, it felt like just about anything could get made. A divorce dramedy set among academics at an artists’ colony? A hallucinogenic riff on the X-MenGroundhog Day for nihilistic East Village stoners? Yes, yes, and yes. 

But it turns out not every media company needs to make its own shows if it can attract as many, or more, viewers by just licensing old seasons of Criminal Minds, and as of 2023, we officially reached the Peak TV downslope, with the number of American scripted shows dropping 24 percent compared to the previous year. As Netflix, to name one, starts taking fewer risks, trading unique fare like GLOW for shovelware like The Night Agent, it can feel like TV has closed its doors to true weirdos. Fantasmas is HBO’s best — and, currently, maybe only — proof that TV still has room for radical imagination.

Julio (Julio Torres, who also created, wrote and directed all six episodes of the season) is unclassifiable. (Woman in a rideshare: “I am a teacher. You are a…?” “A Julio!” he beams.) Our first glimpse of Julio at “work” finds him at Crayola, making his own facial approximations of various colors, then pitching the company on a clear crayon: “Some things aren’t one of the normal colors, or play by the rules of the rainbow. Think about air, or smells, or memory. Shouldn’t they be allowed to be colors? To color something clear is to acknowledge that maybe things are different, and that’s just fine! To color something clear is to reimagine coloring as we know it.” 

After the meeting, Julio catches up with his robot assistant Bibo (voice of Joe Rumrill), who wants a day off to get his teeth cleaned. Julio doesn’t mind Bibo taking the time, but is concerned that Bibo may have unrealistic expectations for the outing that end up disappointing him, given that Bibo doesn’t have teeth. Bibo, in turn, is concerned that Julio has been ignoring notices from his landlord about an imminent eviction; Julio has much less interest in that subject than he does in buying an elegant new earring in the shape of a golden oyster. 

As Julio does his errands and visits with friends new and old, the action periodically follows a tangent into a separate story: a surprisingly emotional episode of Melf, about an alien joining a human family, playing on the iPad in Julio’s rideshare; an elucidation of Julio’s view that the letter Q (Steve Buscemi) comes up too early in the alphabet. 

Part sitcom, part sketch show, Fantasmas is as unclassifiable as Julio himself.

Torres first became known in the world of comedy as a writer on Saturday Night Live. During his tenure, the show’s nerdiest viewers could be sure that the strangest, most singular and queerest sketches were his.

During his time on the show, Torres collaborated with comedian and writer Ana Fabrega and Fred Armisen on HBO’s Los Espookys. A mostly Spanish-language sitcom set in an unspecified Latin American country, Los Espookys revolves around the titular “horror group” — four friends who make a business, of sorts, hiring themselves out to create practical effects for desperate clients. For example, the group is approached by a scientist studying alien activity who needs them to pose as extraterrestrials during an academic review so that her grant is renewed.

Torres plays Andrés, a spoiled chocolate heir who shares many qualities in common with the characters he’d created for SNL: a deep sensitivity to the natural world; a penchant for dramatic hand gestures; and an understanding that seemingly ordinary objects can be enchanted (or cursed). 

Fantasmas feels like Torres took all of the obsessions we’ve seen him write about — in SNL, in Los Espookys, in his 2019 HBO stand-up special My Favorite Shapes, and in his feature-film writing-directing début Problemista, released earlier this year by A24 — and remixed them with the least amount of structure we’ve seen him employ thus far. 

Bob Odenkirk has talked and written about all the money that he, as an SNL writer, saw wasted on the construction of sets that would only be used once, and how he kept those budgets low on his own sketch series, Mr. Show. Torres goes Odenkirk one better with a Dogme 95-esque aesthetic: The production design is deliberately artificial, with spaces delineated using crudely assembled pipes and brackets, garishly lighted street scenes projected around them. The most convincing effects are reserved for Julio’s dreams; or to give Melf ‘80s-sitcom-caliber verisimilitude; or when we take a trip to a TikTok house (the sectional snakes through the house and out the door, but the space behind it is a snarl of electronic cords that will never be untangled). 

If the show can be said to have a narrative through line, it’s the question of when or why an artist should compromise their vision. Problemista is the story of Alejandro (Torres), an aspiring designer of weird toys for special children (or adults?), who’s moved to the U.S. to apply to a special program at Hasbro. Losing the job that sponsored his green card launches Alejandro into a dangerous gray zone of under-the-table employment, as legitimate documentation of his immigration recedes further and further from his grasp. In the world of Fantasmas, the standard ID is a Proof of Existence card, which Julio has taken a principled stance against seeking, believing he’s an exception who doesn’t need it. 

As the distractions Julio’s created to delay his apartment search only generate additional problems he needs to solve, Vanesja (Martine Gutierrez) — a performance artist who’s been doing a piece as Julio’s agent for so long that now she essentially is just his agent for real — presents opportunities that could get him out of trouble, but at the cost of his artist’s soul. Can Julio sort out all his issues himself, or will he be forced to endorse a queer-targeted credit card created by ExxonMobil, or write a remake of The Lion King for the newest streaming service, Zappos?

Fantasmas can feel like a throwback to the peakiest of Peak TV days, when a show you loved could feel like it was made specifically for you and four other people. Fans of Julio Torres will feast on it, not only because every frame feels like it’s giving us direct access to his brain, aesthetic and sensibility, but because it’s packed with his former collaborators: Fabrega, Gutierrez, Bernardo Velasco, River Ramirez, Spike Einbinder, Eudora Peterson, Sam Taggart, Kim Petras and Greta Titelman all cross-over from Los EspookysSNL’s Aidy Bryant has an instant-classic sketch in a parody ad for an unconventional toilet accessory; and Emma Stone appears both in a long sketch in the season finale and as an executive producer on the series. 

People who aren’t as well versed in the Torres oeuvre, however, may have a harder time getting a grip on what — or, rather, how much — is going on here. If they can open their minds, they might find out that a story of a cursed Pomeranian portrait trolling Grindr for twinks or a legal case in which a sexy Mrs. Claus (Julia Fox) has to testify against a whistleblowing elf (Bowen Yang) is exactly what their comedy diet was missing. 

Or maybe not! Fantasmas definitely won’t be for everyone, but everyone should be glad it could still be made.


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