Fantasmas review: Julio Torres’ new HBO show is an absurdist triumph

Problemista's writer-director-star returns with a powerful rebuke to mid TV

Fantasmas review: Julio Torres’ new HBO show is an absurdist triumph
Julio Torres Photo: Monica Lek/HBO

Julio Torres’ off-kilter sense of humor demands that you leave logic and reason behind. Or rather, it reveals that logic and reason—or, say, bureaucracy and common sense, capitalism and corporate greed—are absurd ideas held together by the barest of glues. In Fantasmas, which premieres June 7 on HBO, he has created a sprawling, chain-link-fence series revolving around a protagonist whose refusal to play into how the rest of the world works serves as a brilliant anchor that skewers what we demand of artists and laymen alike in twenty-first century America.

Torres plays Julio, a young man living in a dreamscape version of New York City who has a distinct relationship with objects, numbers, and even letters. (You won’t believe Q’s backstory.) He uses this talent, gifted to him perhaps by that lightning accident he had as a child, to pitch seemingly unsellable products, TV shows, and movies alike. In a world that insists he appease the masses, Julio is an exception.

With tousled orange hair, silver splashes of makeup, and a smartphone attached to a chain that helps it double as a purse-like prop, Julio often retreats into his inner world, signaled to us as the moments in a theater proscenium stage where his thoughts show up as silent film inter-titles. From the start—as he’s pitching a clear-colored crayon at Crayola—you’re thrust into a world that’s against the kind of person Julio wishes to be. It’s not just that he doesn’t want to fit in (though that’s true). It’s that fitting in would be an abdication.

Julio’s apartment is round and looks quite obviously like a makeshift Hollywood set, warmly welcoming you into this absurdist reality even as it reminds you what you’re watching is hand-crafted make-believe. Similarly, Julio’s looks, wardrobe, and deadpan demeanor (all signature Torres flourishes at this point) serve as merely the scaffolding onto which the former SNL scribe and writer-director-star of Problemista will hang, over the course of six episodes, a series of vignettes that collectively add up to a hilarious threaded story about this increasingly alienated, corporate-driven world we’re all called to live in.

But Julio doesn’t live alone. He’s usually followed around this tiny apartment by Bibo, an adorable blue R2-D2-like robot assistant voiced by Joe Rumrill who’s as much help as he is a nuisance. Bibo is often interrupting Julio’s calls with his performance-artist-cum-agent Vanesja (Martine Gutierrez)—yes, the “j” is silent—and asking for raises and time off so he can pursue other career opportunities. That is when he’s not busy pestering Julio about the many “urgent” notices Julio keeps getting from his landlord.

Those notices are what eventually send Julio into a nightmare of a bureaucratic odyssey driven by his desire to find a lost diamond-encrusted oyster earring that finds him interacting with bored network executives, absentminded mental health professionals, droll customer service agents, and even an entrepreneurial ride-share driver who loves to kiki and only sometimes falls asleep while on the clock. Each episode may hinge on Julio’s quest to find his earring (and perhaps avoid needing to get “proof of existence” required of all those who wish to move through the world with nary an obstacle) but in between, Fantasmas (literally “Ghosts”) finds time to delve into tightly-written stories that are equally ludicrous, hilarious, touching, and ridiculous.

Fantasmas | Official Trailer | Max

What at first feel like unexpected narrative detours—into a sitcom riffing on ALF, an infomercial of a woman’s toilet-decorating business, the tale of an actor working at a theme park, the inner-workings of a zealous sales rep, the water-cooler gossip of two working mermaids, the domestic drama between a gay guy and his Smurf-sized roommates—slowly become the very reason to watch and enjoy Fantasmas. Especially since each new B-plot is populated by some of the funniest people working today. In no other show will you be able to witness the comedic stylings of Aidy Bryant, Rachel Dratch, Cole Escola, and Ziwe, alongside some stellar work from the likes of Emma Stone (an executive producer on the show), Paul Dano, Steve Buscemi, and, yes, Dylan O’Brien, who wears some skimpy red lingerie in a scene destined to be GIFed to abandon.

Such a disparate collection of players and stories would, in lesser hands, be cause for worry—especially as Torres tackles everything from Grindr “Hey”s and “representation matters” mantras to IP-driven showbiz lore and cult-like fitness fads. But Fantasmas has a solid core central concern—about how we’re all just trying to live our best lives in this capitalist, greed-driven hell-scape—that keeps those satellite-like tales in orbit, not to mention nimble storytelling chops that pulls off a surreal conclusion that’s as bleak as it is hopeful.

By the end of its run, Fantasmas establishes itself as a powerful rebuke to mid TV. This is long-form, sketch-like episodic television at its most inventive. With this wild ride of a show, Torres continues to prove he’s one of our most astute storytellers working today. He is constantly finding ways to not just avoid fitting into a box but reminding us that boxes are immaterial, best dispensed with if we are to build a brighter, better, more creative future ahead—perhaps one colored in with clear crayons that celebrate the air between us, the smells around us, and even the ideas we’ve yet to imagine.

Fantasmas premieres June 7 on HBO

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