The Primetime Emmy Awards for production design come with ample qualifications: There are two awards for hour-long narrative programs, divided along lines of period and genre; in the half-hour realm, the breakdown of the nominees proportionately reflects the number of single-camera shows and multi-camera shows submitted. Based on recent ceremonies’ nominees, that probably means Will & Grace’s second swan song is due to make a final run at an award whose early existence it largely dominated, but with Veep over and no new seasons of Russian Doll or Barry in the mix, the not-filmed-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience field is wide open. And, at the risk of creating a bogus either/or scenario, here’s hoping it’s open enough for two supernatural comedies that excel at world-building.
It’s surprising that the first season of What We Do In The Shadows didn’t garner more than a couple of Emmy nominations in technical categories, neither of which acknowledged the dilapidated glamor of its primary set; perhaps the bats just flew too far beneath the radar. But with a second season that was even more popular and praised, and coming off of co-creator Taika Waititi’s Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Jojo Rabbit, the vampires of Staten Island stand a better chance of getting noticed, across the board, by the Television Academy. But will the same be true of the monster-movie enthusiasts hiding just outside the frame in HBO’s surrealist “reverse Scooby-Doo,” Los Espookys?
The series about a group of friends who find their calling making creature-feature fantasies a reality—like staging a haunting to determine the heir to an eccentric millionaire’s fortune, or giving a fading vacation destination its own sea monster tourist attraction—deserves consideration in all comedy categories. The pilot script by co-creators Fred Armisen, Ana Fabrega, and Julio Torres is an inspiredly kooky piece of bilingual deadpan; as the delightfully gullible Tati and the poor-little-rich-boy-just-dying-to-tell-you-about-his-mysterious-past Andrés, respectively, Fabrega and Torres ought to be in the conversation about best supporting performances. At the very least, members of the Academy ought to show appreciation for what a treat Los Espookys is to look at, thanks in no small part to the otherworldly production design of Jorge Zambrano.
That work is crucial to the delicate balance of Los Espookys. Well before its eponymous “horror group” is tangling with a cursed mirror or a parasitic demon, their surroundings hint at a default dreaminess: a living room littered with canine knickknacks; the pastel sterility of the dentist’s office where Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti) works. Andrés lives in a lavish estate of regal blues, where he lounges on a golden pool inflatable and sips from a bejeweled juice box. Los Espookys strive to bring a hint of the supernatural and the paranormal into a world that’s already pretty fantastical to begin with.
It’s an escapist vision from which the characters long to escape, the goth drama of their costuming making Andrés, Úrsula, and Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco) look like a jar of black licorice surrounded by rolls of candy buttons. (With such a confectionary palette, it’s beyond perfect that Andrés’ family money comes from chocolate.) The spaces they make for themselves aren’t necessarily gloomier, but they are less clean and luxurious. Gnarled wires, goopy prosthetics, clusters of obsolete technology and magazine cut-outs—Los Espookys gets it across that wherever Renaldo works or finds refuge, clutter and mess tend to follow. The season’s most distinctive environment stands in stark contrast to Los Espookys’ pastimes: the U.S. embassy run by Ambassador Melanie (Greta Titelman) and her infantilized, over-manicured staff. With interior decor equal parts Mattel and Procter & Gamble, it’s a blunt commentary on the sorry state of American foreign policy: diplomacy as extended vacation, in a space that reflects both juvenile priorities and tastes. It’s a pop-art marvel, its sheer variety of pinks as easy to fixate on as the mirror that traps Melanie near the end of the season. Her Dalíesque prison of reflections and sand isn’t hard on the eyes, either.
And why stop at recognizing the production design? There’s story in the demon’s gill-like cheekbones and her and Andrés’ matching hair, too. The show tells a joke with sound just as well as it does with a visual: The inspirational thump that cues up whenever someone mentions the multi-level marketing scam Hierbalite is award-worthy in and of itself. Sure, Los Espookys already exists as both testament and tribute to the talent and dedication of people like Zambrano, costume designer Muriel Parra, makeup artists Margarita Marchi and Paloma Cruchaga—but awards help open up further opportunity for expressing that talent and dedication. Los Espookys’ first season doesn’t boast What We Do In The Shadows’ blockbuster-level transformation effects, or a climactic free-for-all among vampires and one reluctant slayer. But what it does have is plenty of heart and plenty of guts—and they’re spilling forth from one impressively ghoulish quinceañera cake.