Review: ‘Fantasmas’ Journeys to the Center of Julio Torres’s Mind

Review: ‘Fantasmas’ Journeys to the Center of Julio Torres’s Mind

The title of Julio Torres’s new HBO series, “Fantasmas,” is a way of giving a name to a thing you can’t see. In an early scene Torres, playing a version of himself, pitches Crayola executives on a crayon for “the color clear,” which he suggests naming after the Spanish word for “ghosts.” The executives hesitate; clear, they say, isn’t a color. “Then what do you call this?” he asks, gesturing at the air. “The space between us. The emotional space, I mean.”

The scene is typical Torres, absurd, fantastical, a touch wistful. It also suggests a good way to describe his hard-to-pin down comic sensibility. As the delightful “Fantasmas” reiterates, he’s drawing with crayons that are in nobody else’s box.

Over the past several years, Torres has established himself as a premier comic fabulist. In “Los Espookys,” the unjustly short-lived supernatural comedy Torres cocreated for HBO, he imagined a fictional Latin American country where magic-realist mysteries unfolded. In the 2019 special “My Favorite Shapes by Julio Torres,” he imagined stories about a series of objects — cubes, toys, figurines — that rolled past him on a conveyor belt like whimsical sushi.

The six-episode “Fantasmas,” which begins on Friday, lies somewhere between those two works structurally while borrowing elements of his earlier work as a writer for “Saturday Night Live.” It’s more digressive than a sitcom, more serial than a sketch comedy. Think of it as a sketch fantasy.

“Fantasmas” places his character, Julio, in a stage-set version of New York City located a few parallel universes left of the one we know. In this one, the nightlife includes a club for gay hamsters; an “incorporeal services” company entices customers to “free yourself from the burden of having a body”; and the subway public address system announces that “the next F train will arrive in 178 minutes.” (OK, that one may roughly approximate actual New Yorkers’ experience.)

Torres completists will note strong echoes of his recent film, “Problemista,” in which he played an El Salvadoran immigrant in New York scrambling to secure his work visa. The movie even began similarly, with his character pitching eccentric toy ideas to Hasbro, including a Barbie-like doll with her fingers crossed behind her back to create “tension.”

But “Fantasmas” operates more on the level of dream and fantasy, where Torres works best. Here, the quest driving the story is Julio’s need for a “Proof of Existence” card in order to find a new apartment, which shifts the immigration story of “Problemista” into existential absurdity. (The plot also involves his search for a missing earring the exact size of an oyster-shaped birthmark just below his ear.)

The shaggy-dog story is mostly a vehicle for a series of imaginative detours. We meet Julio’s robot assistant, Bibo (voiced by Joe Rumrill), who dreams of being a performer; Vanesja (Martine), a performance artist posing as Julio’s agent; and Chester (Tomás Matos), a taxi driver whose personal ride-share app allows patrons access to the bathroom codes at “various Chipotle locations.” (The vast supporting cast also includes alumni of other Torres projects.)

For everyone in “Fantasmas,” the boundary between dream and reality is porous. Julio has a habit of “going into himself” — stepping out of his daily life into a stage-set mind space that is as real to him as reality. But the series also imagines the inner lives of peripheral characters, like an imperious but secretly insecure customer-service agent. You may be the hero or the villain of the story, “Fantasmas” suggests, but all of us have access to an internal wonderland of magic.

Amid Julio’s rambling quest for his earring and security, “Fantasmas” intersperses a series of sketch-like set pieces. One invents an “Alf”-style sitcom about an alien who moves in with a human family and falls in love with the dad; another tells the story of the letter Q (Steve Buscemi), imagined as an avant-garde provocateur cursed with being placed too early in the alphabet, among the more “accessible” letters.

Some of the more “S.N.L.”-like bits don’t pay off as well, like a running gag in which Bowen Yang plays an elf suing Santa Claus for unpaid labor. But even the more conventional-seeming gags, like a “Real Housewives” parody (starring Rachel Dratch, Cole Escola, Rosie Perez and Emma Stone), have a way of taking unexpected turns into the uncanny.

Your experience of “Fantasmas” may depend on your taste for Torres’s brand of offbeat riffs and fanciful imagery. But whether you find it tickling or twee, there is substance at its heart: the precariousness of living on the margins of society; the stresses of the hustle-culture economy; the experience of being nonconforming, be it in gender or career or artistic terms.

At heart, “Fantasmas” is a dream tale about the concrete reality of how tough it can be to maintain and house a body in this world. Finding space for one’s self is a stressor that can manifest itself in dreams, like the one that New Yorkers often report of finding a secret door to a hidden room inside one’s apartment.

Julio Torres’s mind is a little like that door. Take a few steps down from reality, hang a left and turn the knob, and suddenly you’re in a new world.

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