Fantasmas Shows Us the World Through Julio Torres’ Eyes

Comedy Reviews Julio Torres
Fantasmas Shows Us the World Through Julio Torres’ Eyes

Fantasmas was first announced under the title Little Films, a descriptive if obvious title for a show consisting of a bunch of “little films.” It’s a sketch comedy show that went to art school, a quirky romp that’s not always laugh-out-loud funny but consistently imaginative and beautifully cinematic.

Fantasmas wraps around and connects most of its disparate sketches through a loose ongoing narrative. Creator/writer/director Julio Torres stars as Julio, who works as a “Julio.” What does a “Julio” do? Basically, he utilizes the gifts of free-association synesthesia granted to him as a child after being struck by lightning on the toilet (he never had to go to gym class after that). He says he sees the world differently from everyone else, though who knows what counts as “normal” in this semi-dystopian alternate reality; even when Julio’s absent, the other characters operate in a similar register of German expressionism by way of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse by way of The People’s Joker.

Julio lacks a “Proof of Existence” card—something he needs to find a new apartment, to get medical care, to delete his body and upload his brain into the computer cloud. He’d rather not bother with Proof of Existence, especially if he can solve all his problems by just tracking down a missing oyster earring, though his manager Vanesja (Martine Gutierrez, here credited only under her first name for semi-spoiler-y reasons) wants him to get Proof by becoming famous.

This whole “Proof of Existence” story is reminiscent of the work visa quest in Torres’ recent film Problemista, but further abstracted into a multifaceted metaphor. “Problemista but twice as surreal” describes the overall vibe here; Torres has reunited with much of the same crew, including cinematographer Frederik Wenzel, composer Robert Ouyang Rusli, and producers Dave McCarty and Emma Stone (the latter of whom is one of the show’s countless celebrity guests). His Problemista co-star Tilda Swinton also has a voice cameo in Fantasmas, for what might be the weirdest role in her whole career.

Some of the show’s skits/“little films” come from Julio’s “Julio” ideas, like Steve Buscemi as the personification of the letter Q. Others play out when following the different characters he crosses paths with (e.g. Alexa Demie as a way-too-into-it customer service rep, Dicks: The Musical stars Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp as partying gay hamsters), or when he or the other characters are watching TV shows (e.g. the Alf-gone-wrong sitcom “MELF,” the multiple layers of reality within the reality show “The True Women of New York”). 

Many bits come back in multiple episodes, and they pretty much always come back stronger than how they started. A trial bit where an elf (Bowen Yang) sues Santa is one of the show’s more obvious and less funny bits when we first see it, but the running gag grows more pointed each time it returns. The show’s take on superhero fandom is funny to begin with, but in a way that could border on mean-spirited if not for how the fanboy character (Spike Einbinder) makes his return later on. And sometimes the returning segments just make something that was already great even more amazing, such as what happens with the Smurf-like “little guys” (all voiced by Torres in distorted subtitles-necessary cadence).

As Julio tries to sell his unmarketable ideas to a new streaming service from Zappos.com (Torres has a taste for offbeat, corporate-unapproved “product placement”), Fantasmas gets into meta-commentary on the entertainment industry, representational politics, and the frustrations of trying to find any success as an artist in our hyper-capitalist world. There’s a clear personal element to all this, though there’s obviously a limit to how much the fictional Julio’s experience reflects upon the real Julio Torres’ when the latter somehow actually sold all these weird ideas to a major network.

I’m not sure when Fantasmas was filmed, but the show is set in early 2023, and some dialogue in the cloud-uploading subplot offers some connection to the AI issues the WGA and SAG-AFTRA went on strike over later in the year. In that light, I want to believe the story of Julio’s cute robot assistant Bibo (Joe Rumrill) seeking validation as an actor wasn’t meant as any sort of commentary on those issues at all, because if it was, that would be weird in a less-good way than the rest of the show’s good weirdness.

Sketch comedies by their nature tend towards inconsistency, and Fantasmas is no exception, but its strong style and vision provide a high baseline of entertainment even when the jokes are hit-or-miss and the connecting narrative doesn’t come together as satisfyingly as it could. It’s like nothing else currently on television, and it’s fun to live in Torres’ mind for these six half-hours.

Fantasmas premieres June 7 at 11PM ET on HBO.

Reuben Baron is the author of the webcomic Con Job: Revenge of the SamurAlchemist, a member of the neurodiverse theatre troupe EPIC Players, and a contributor to Looper, Wealth of Geeks, and Anime News Network, among other websites. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndalusianDoge and Bluesky at @andalusiandoge.bsky.social.

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