Celebrating Eccentricity and Recognising Existence's Chaos, 'Fantasmas' Is a Must-See Serving of Surreal Brilliance

After 'Los Espookys', ex-'Saturday Night Live' writer Julio Torres has created, penned and directed — and also stars in — another wonder that only he could've made.
Sarah Ward
Published on July 03, 2024

Watching Fantasmas means beaming with joy and wonder, whether 2024's standout new comedy so far — and series overall — is embracing the idiosyncratic and fantastical, painting navigating life as a dystopian experience, or dreaming up anything and everything in-between. Wanting a world where normal colours aren't the only hues shining and palettes don't play by the rules of the rainbow is mentioned early in the six-episode HBO show, as uttered by creator, writer, director and star Julio Torres in-character as the on-screen Julio. At least as long as audiences are viewing the former Saturday Night Live scribe's latest project, they don't need to pine for the same dream: we thankfully live in a world where Fantasmas exists.

With a series that uses a pitch to Crayola for clear crayons to initially weave in its championing of accepting and adoring difference, Torres welcomes viewers into a realm that couldn't have been conjured up by anyone else. Those familiar with 2017's famous 'Papyrus' sketch with Ryan Gosling (The Fall Guy) and the previous year's 'Wells for Boys' skit will know that Torres has a distinctive comedic vision, as kept dazzling when he became the co-guiding force behind Los Espookys, then the filmmaker responsible for Problemista. In Fantasmas, his way of seeing reality — and satirising it — beams bright like he's colouring in with highlighters. Streaming in Australia via Binge since June 2024, this is a show that celebrates eccentricity and confronts life's absurdities, doing so with a pencil case stuffed with crayons that no one else has ever considered picking up.

It's true again here, as it was with Los Espookys: Torres leaves his viewers grateful that they inhabit the same plane where he's making TV. HBO has once more given him the means and support to craft a comedy series so singular, so clearly the work of a visionary and so gloriously surreal that it has almost no peers beyond his work — and it does indeed look and feel crafted. There's little that's the same in its narrative or aesthetics, but Fantasmas brings to mind the patron saint of spilling the contents of your head and heart onto the screen with zero willingness to compromise or hold back: David Lynch. While that's the utmost of praise, even such a comparison can't prepare audiences for a show where Steve Buscemi (Curb Your Enthusiasm) plays the letter Q as an avant-garde outsider musician and Santa Claus is taken to court by elves (SNL's Bowen Yang among them) for trying to pay them in Christmas spirit.

Then there's series-within-a-series MELF — just one of Fantasmas' pop-culture parodies — which riffs on 80s and 90s hit sitcom ALF, is led by Paul Dano (Spaceman), features quite the twist on its alien-adopting premise and screens in rideshares. Fantasmas also delivers a commercial for toilet dresses fronted by an entrepreneur (Aidy Bryant, another SNL alum) with more passion than you'd expect possible for slinging clothing to deck out commodes. It's easy to keep noting the show's sketches, but the selection mentioned so far already demonstrates another few crucial layers to Torres' comedy. Pursuing nostalgia but realising that nothing is ever as you remembered, constantly and ceaselessly hustling and selling, never being able to escape content anywhere, succumbing to meaningless distractions because it's better than facing life unfiltered: add them to Fantasmas' musings.

As the sets appear exactly like sets but with a DIY spin, and also as vignettes pop in and out to expand Julio's mindscape as much as the futuristic domain imagined by the IRL Torres, there is an overarching narrative at the core of Fantasmas. The series' take on Julio trades in concepts, plus in being unflinchingly himself, but doing anything is impossible without a Proof of Existence ID card. He's on a quest to secure one, which isn't straightforward. In the process, he's also searching for a tiny gold oyster earring, under the threat of becoming homeless, and pondering whether to upload his consciousness and jettison his body.

As star-studded cameos stack up as well, by Julio's side are robot companion Bibo (Joe Rumrill, The Calling) and agent Vanesja (Martine Gutierrez, returning from Los Espookys and Problemista). The first yearns to become an actor, because seeking fame and fortune isn't just for people. The second is really a performance artist playing an agent, but has been immersed in the act for so long that she's long stopped merely doing the gig as a show. While marvelling at the ingenuity of Fantasmas also just comes with watching it, statements abound again and again in every element. Be it from a narrative arc, plot point, side quest, design detail or seeming throwaway joke, there's a message or several to draw from each and every second of the series — and no matter how phantasmagorical that everything it flings at the screen can get, which is very.

Torres excavates and plays with a world that trusts companies and bureaucracies over humans. He sees the cold, hard truth that prizing possessions and consumerism is a form of solace and catharsis, especially when securing existence's necessities — housing being one — is a battle. Fantasmas also contemplates the sensation that being flesh and blood can feel like a disadvantage. Amid the array of relatable issues in its sights, it equally tears into perceptions of societal status, as well as class clashes, more of capitalism's many woes and inequities, health care, the treatment of immigrants and the inescapable online realm. Although purposefully eager to splash around its handmade-esque creativity, too, it does so to stress that it's the product of people chasing a dream, alongside coping with everything that dwells starkly beyond their wildest fantasies, rather than soullessly hailing from corporations bowing to an algorithm.

As an actor, adding to a resume that also spans The Other Two, Shrill and Search Party, Torres is just as an inimitable as a presence as the shows that he creates, and so the Lynch parallels continue. His on-screen company in Fantasmas includes Emma Stone (Poor Things) in a Real Housewives spoof, Dylan O'Brien (Maximum Truth) wearing lingerie, Tilda Swinton (The Killer) as water, and Kim Petras and Princess Nokia as mermaid telemarketers — plus familiar Los Espookys faces and a whole heap more — with everyone from A-listers to bit-parters delightfully adopting his wavelength. Stone executive produces, too, with the two-time Oscar-winner backing up the same role on one of 2023's best and boldest new TV shows (The Curse, which she led) with one of 2024's. Perhaps, as Torres and viewers are, she's also dealing with the fact that getting through each day never stops being bizarre by leaning in.

Check out the trailer for Fantasmas below:

Fantasmas streams via Binge.

Published on July 03, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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