‘Fantasmas’ Review: Julio Torres’ HBO Series Is Star-Studded, Weird And Wonderful

Comedian Julio Torres brings his unique brand of creativity to this absurdist series — with guest spots from Emma Stone, Julia Fox, Paul Dano and more — and it's a smashing success.

Julio Torres in his new series Fantasmas. Photograph by Monica Lek/HBO

There’s no one in the entertainment industry quite like Julio Torres. The multi-hyphenate has been behind some memorable SNL skits, the Peabody Award-winning Spanish language show Los Espookys, and this year’s utterly original A24 release Problemista, along with more niche comedic offerings like his delightful special My Favorite Shapes. Now, he’s bringing Fantasmas to the small screen, a six-episode series full of wonder and whimsy.

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Fantasmas follows Torres as a fictional version of himself, dwelling in a mildly German expressionist version of New York City where a new form of identification, the Proof of Existence card, has become necessary for just about everything. Julio refuses to get one on political and philosophical grounds, and while that presents some big problems in how he leads his life, he instead obsesses over the idea that a birthmark on his face is actually a growing malignant mole. In order to prove it to the medical establishment, though, he must recover a lost earring shaped like an oyster that he insists will show that the mole is getting bigger.

Suffice it to say, the plot is not really the point of this series. Fantasmas instead finds magic in short skits and vignettes revolving around a massive ensemble of characters. There are a few constants, like Julio’s agent Vanesja (performance artist Martine, captivating and hilarious in every second she’s on screen), his robot assistant Bibo (voiced by Joe Rumrill) and unorthodox rideshare driver Chester (Tomas Matos), and the show’s slew of cameos and short stories proceed from their exploits. All of these moments come together to make an overarching story that encompasses creativity, individuality, community and a societal system that seems to look down on all of those things.

It is an unequivocally, earnestly weird show, and you have to be at least a little bit willing to meet it on its level. The first episode sees Julio getting engrossed in the family sitcom Melf, which is just like Alf except for one major story difference (and the inexplicable presence of Paul Dano) that will make you cackle. Later, Julio tells a story about how getting struck by lightning as a child allowed him to understand the inner lives of concepts like colors and letters; this turns into a segment where the letter Q (Steve Buscemi) discovers that it’s too avant-garde for its position in the alphabet.

It’s a strong start for this kind of story structure, though inevitably some of the vignettes end up better than others. A Real Housewives spoof towards the end of the series features Rosie Perez, Rachel Dratch, Cole Escola and Emma Stone (who also serves as one of the show’s producers) in an inspired take on reality television, but it stumbles rather than soars. Meanwhile, Alexa Demie does some truly fantastic work as an ultra-obedient insurance customer service rep, Dylan O’Brien shows up as the 39-year-old star of hit YA series with a vulgar title and Julia Fox makes a memorable court appearance as Mrs. Claus. There’s plenty to laugh at, especially if you enjoy the absurd.

Steve Buscemi as the letter Q in Fantasmas. Photograph by Atsushi Nishijima/HBO

That said, the show has a bit of a repetitive streak. Viewers who are new to Torres’ brand of comedy likely won’t notice, but those who have enjoyed his previous work (or even follow his Instagram) are likely to pick up on some familiar jokes. Sure, that’s a fraction of the audience here, but it does dull the impact at times. Fantasmas covers similar ground to Problemista, and the series does a better job than the film in how it executes its themes and stories, but the two projects overlap so much that they invite an added layer of criticism for one another.

Aside from those few and far between hiccups, Fantasmas is a deliriously delightful work of art. The attention to detail from every department is as clear as day, from the impressively intricate sets to the stellar sound design. You want a queer hamster rave? Bitchy customer support mermaids? A crayon for the color clear? Fantasmas will make it happen, and it will make you laugh.

‘Fantasmas’ debuts on Max on June 7th. 

‘Fantasmas’ Review: Julio Torres’ HBO Series Is Star-Studded, Weird And Wonderful