Review

Fantasmas is a Surreal Dystopian Show Like No Other

One of our strangest comedic minds fully lets loose.

HBO
Inverse Reviews

Have you ever wondered why there isn’t a clear crayon? Or what Timothée Chalamet would look like if he were a beautiful pearl? Those are the questions pondered by Julio Torres, the comedian behind Saturday Night Live classics like “Wells for Boys” and “Papyrus.” After leaving the show, he created some indescribable works for HBO, like his comedy special My Favorite Shapes and the canceled-too-soon Los Espookys, while making his mark on the movie landscape with his indie darling Problemista.

But Torres’ latest work is far more abstract than anything he’s done before, and the result is a meandering, often otherworldly, look at day-to-day life that’s far more daring than even the most lofty sci-fi shows.

In Fantasmas, Julio Torres plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself who lives in a world far more suited to him. His apartment is whimsical and open-concept, with a bathroom mirror shaped exactly like him. He has a robotic assistant named Bibo who helps him through day-to-day life, and an agent named Vanesja (played with Old Hollywood flair by Martine Gutierrez) who almost operates on his wavelength. But in this world, apartments are controlled by banks and seemingly everything in life requires a Proof of Existence, echoing Torres’ own journey getting citizenship.

Julio can’t obtain Proof of Existence, because he doesn’t really have a job — he’s just “Julio.” But Julio’s skill — much like Torres’ own creative genius — is centered around his tremendous ability for compassion and empathy. In the past, we’ve seen him write long monologues for self-conscious sinks, tiny cacti, and racing penguins. In Fantasmas, those daydreams get extracted into full-on vignettes. Steve Buscemi plays the letter Q, who slowly realizes he is far too early in the alphabet for what a strange letter he is. Aidy Bryant plays a salesman for dresses for toilets. Paul Dano and Sunita Mani star in an imaginary Alf-esque sitcom that takes a very adult turn.

The full list of cameos is too long to mention. Torres has brought together all the best collaborators from SNL, Los Espookys, and Problemista, plus some alt-comedy mainstays like Amy Sedaris, Cole Escola, and Kate Berlant. He’s your favorite comedian’s favorite comedian, and that’s very obvious here.

Even as Fantasmas dips into some of the most mocked topics, like the bleak landscape of streaming services or the scourge of reality TV, it’s done unlike you’ve never seen before. Julio pitches a Lion King remake (about a background zebra who questions the lions’ right to power) to an executive for Zappos (Natasha Lyonne) while they sit at a shoe-shaped table. Minutes later, we see one of the stars of “True Women of New York” (Emma Stone) realize she isn’t even a True Woman anymore.

Steve Buscemi plays Q, the letter the world isn’t ready for.

HBO

Despite all the tangents and ponderings in Julio’s mind, which is staged as a miniature proscenium, Fantasmas actually has some impressive worldbuilding. Much like in Problemista, some of the most abstract concepts are shown personified, including the elements that make Julio’s life so dystopian. “There’s the real world, and then there’s the fantastical world,” Torres told Inverse in March while promoting Problemista. “But really, the fantastical world is there to explain the real world, they’re symbiotic.”

But in Fantasmas, these worlds are constantly blurring, creating a plot that snakes through the series like a river reaching a bay, finding the most natural route. Through a journey fueled by a missing oyster earring, a broken healthcare system, and a struggling internet cafe, by the end of the six episodes, Julio finds himself agreeing to upload himself to an incorporeal form.

It’s this almost magical-realist tone that makes every odd choice, like the street of New York portrayed by LED boards of bodegas, a CVS for hamsters, or a delivery driver being the designer of The Dress (you know the one) feel like the most obvious thing in the world. Julio Torres’ comedy may feel ineffable, but in watching Fantasmas, it often makes more sense than the world we do live in, holograms and all.

Fantasmas is now streaming on Max.

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