‘Fantasmas’: Julio Torres’ HBO Series Is an Immersive and Personal Phantasmagoria

When an artist like Julio Torres is allowed to let loose, the result can be art that is both personal and universally immersive. His new HBO show, “Fantasmas,” is a surreal oddity that plays around with multiple formats. At first glance, it is a sketch show, dig deeper and it is a singular commentary on the artistic process, identity and melancholy. Torres’ unique voice was evident when he wrote for “Saturday Night Live” from 2016 to 2019, and later as a showrunner and filmmaker. This Salvadoran is now injecting another fresh offering into HBO’s roster, capable of making us laugh and wonder.

Though divided into segments, there is a running arc in the show centered on Julio (played by Torres), who while out clubbing in New York, loses a gold oyster earring which he must now search for. Through different sketches and dreams, we get a larger sense of Julio’s existence and that of other lives. We see him as a consultant for Crayola, where executives don’t take well to his original ideas. He faces eviction from his home, which is a lair inside a water tower. The eviction notice can only be ignored for so long. While grabbing a rideshare with a queer driver who functions almost like a Virgil, other passengers get in and learn about Julio’s unique sensitivity to shapes, colors, numbers, and the alphabet.

“Fantasmas,” which means “Ghosts” in Spanish, will no doubt be compared to David Lynch because of its dreamlike aspects. But this is not a project like the recent “I Saw the TV Glow,” where the symbolism becomes very archaic. Torres’ ideas are closer to satire mixed with classic surrealism. The TV in the rideshare might be showing a series, “Melf,” which is a satirical nod to sitcoms like “Alf.” It starts off funny enough, with Paul Danno as the head of a mixed suburban family who take in a puppet character. It then grows dark when Danno and the puppet, Melf, start having an affair. Steve Buscemi appears as an aging punk rocker, “Q,” who riles audiences with his cantankerous set. He’s also a literal personification of the letter Q, while other letters hover around him.

This is the kind of fun Torres has in taking on subject matter that other shows would turn into dreary melodrama or raunchy comedy. Torres, who identifies as gay, splashes autobiographical commentary in doses of quirky humor. His alter ego in this series laments that the “first and only queer hamster nightclub” in New York City has now been turned into a hamster CVS. Later, he will try to pitch a show to executives titled, “How I Came Out to My Abuela.” Torres was born in El Salvador and had to wait for his green card while living on a visa for “aliens of extraordinary ability.” While this is a major privilege the average migrant can only dream about, there is little doubt about how one’s sense of identity is forever marked. In “Fantasmas,” Julio is constantly dogged for “proof of existence.” 

Other sketches are hallucinatory and bitingly funny. A high school teacher tries to dissect a strange drawing by her student, then returns home to a depressed boyfriend who needs cuddling as if he were a child. Their apartment is a memorable set where beyond their windows, the teacher’s high school classroom looks attached to their home. This first season features cameos by major stars like Emma Stone, who is also an executive producer, in sketches such as a parody of “Real Housewives.” None of the comedy is shallow and even the more puzzling sections are full of heart. It’s as if Torres has been keeping a dream journal he now has the freedom to turn into a show. Maybe he does. If so, he needs to keep mining it. 

“Fantasmas” displays how much Torres has grown as an artist since his SNL days. In 2019, he co-created the excellent comedy “Los Espookys” for HBO, which brought a wonderful Latino spin to the genre of paranormal investigators. This year, he also released his feature directorial debut, “Problemista,” co-starring Tilda Swinton and also brimming with wondrous visuals and nods at his Salvadoran roots. “Fantasmas” airs late in the evening (at least for the East Coast), and in a way that’s very fitting. This show deserves a wide audience but is also a good late night watch, when the mind begins to ease itself towards sleep. Torres wants to share about himself and explore who we all are through the language of the subconscious, where what we want to say can become very honest through the strangeness of pure imagination.

Fantasmas” season one premieres June 7 and airs Fridays at 11 p.m. ET on HBO.