Vita Chronicles II: farewell to the espooky and the escary
On Los Espookys's cancellation, Latin American I.P. in streaming, and dispatches from the mental miscellanea
There’s a popular segment in open Mexican television called “¡No les tocaba!” – translated as “It wasn’t their time!” – that showcases video footage of individuals encountering near death experiences.
“Let’s take a break to take a look at the people that stared death in the face, but… it wasn’t their time!” announces the news anchor.
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Next, a happy, interstitial jingle overlaid with a pre-recorded, deep, robotic male voice goes: ¡No les tocaba!
A man driving a motorcycle veers ever-so-slightly away from a collapsing cargo truck because ¡no le tocaba!
A woman and small child cross the street and brush past a speeding car but, thankfully, it wasn’t their time to go!
A car mechanic rolls away from an SUV that would otherwise topple him. The man casually stands up, physically unscathed from the imminent fatality. Lucky for him, ¡no le tocaba!
This segment is produced by TV Azteca, the second largest media and entertainment conglomerate in Mexico after Televisa, and it is as gripping as it is mundane and as horrifying as it is hilarious – tiny bursts of melodrama contained in 10 second intervals.
Like its competitor, TV Azteca has produced mega-hits for nearly a century, including “La Academia” (Mexico’s own American Idol) and its daily morning talk show, “Ventaneando,” which translates literally to “airing it out.”
Some of its latest headlines include:
“Pedro Perroni confesses he is bisexual with his ex-wife’s support”
“Caught on tape: Alma Cerro enjoys some delicious street tacos!”
“Karla Sofía Gascón admits she suffered from bullying due to her dark sense of humor”
It is common knowledge that the Latin American experience – armed with an entertainment complex so large and morbid and despicable and funny – can be so tragic that we often lessen the blow by thinking, “imagine living in Switzerland and missing out on these moments.”
Fictions rarely overshadow actual headlines, unless these are written by Julio Torres and Ana Fábrega, who, in the now-canceled HBO show Los Espookys, drew from a hyper-specific Latin American sensibility to espouse a universal vision of the macabre – jokes and tragedy and all.
Since HBO announced it was pulling the plug on the show, viewers and critics lamented the streamer’s decision. It’s easier to do away with a show led by Latinx talent, denounced one viewer. Writer Carolina Miranda penned an appreciation for the show, describing it as “[breaking] the narrative mold” and giving us “a world in which Latinos existed only in relation to themselves, not as satellites orbiting the United States.” Reanna Cruz, a producer for New York Magazine’s podcast Switched on Pop, lauded the show for its depiction of queer latinidad.
Conversely, New Yorker’s TV critic, Emily Nussbaum said in a Tweet that talking about the loss of Latino representation “makes the show sound like some representational do-gooder non-profit, which it was NOT, nearly the opposite—it was a silly, confident, stylized comedy with fantastic characters (in both senses), set in a *highly* specific (camp, queer, satirical) universe.” Nussbaum’s argument about the Espooky kitschy universality echoes her first review of the show in 2019, in which she relates Los Espookys’s “D.I.Y. gameness” to “a recent viral story about a high-school drama club in New Jersey that, on a tiny budget, staged a meticulous reënactment of ‘Alien,’ using nothing but trash and imagination.”
By the numbers
Upon its cancellation, Deadline reported that season 1 premiered in 2019 to an audience of 272,000 and each episode averaged around 156,000 live viewers. The first episode of the second season drew only 104,000 total viewers. Data for the entirety of season two wasn’t reported by Nielsen because the last three episodes didn’t hit the Top 150.
With such potentially large audiences to reach – among the American and Latin American and Latinx spectrum and beyond – as well as streamers’ recent embrace of foreign-language and cross-cultural content, it is not entirely clear to me why HBO didn’t take a risk on Los Espookys.
Nussbaum’s claim that this move is a bellwether for the new HBO regime seems counter to what the execs are saying. Earlier this month, Variety reported that Latin American OTT TV episode and movie revenues will double to $14 billion in 2027, a reason why the merged HBO Max Discovery+ streaming service picked Latin America as its first international launch market.
According to WBD President, Fernando Medin, the entertainment company is fully “committed” to combining global U.S. content with “extremely compelling IP created locally” in Latin America. This is not far-off from HBO’s previous pledge to develop 100 Latin American original series between 2020 and 2021. Of the shows listed in the article, I was only able to find that “Días de gallos,” an Argentinian series about freestyle rappers, was renewed for a second season.
Netflix has fared slightly better when it comes to Spanish-language, Latin American content, with hits like Narcos, La reina del sur, Daughter from another mother, and the early iterations of Club de Cuervos and La casa de las flores.
As Michael Pachter, an equity analyst for WedBush Securities, told me earlier this year, “[Netflix is] taking these foreign series, and they're turning them into U.S. hits.”
In comparison, Espookys closest analogue, What We Do In The Shadows, a mockumentary style show that follows the lives of four vampires that live in Staten Island, has been renewed for six seasons, even after its viewership significantly dwindled.
So, what spooked-off HBO? Did HBO not have the secret sauce to make Los Espookys a hit? Was it because, as Miranda claimed, Los Espookys wasn’t “a great show”?
It may very well be the case that the combination of production value and low viewership spelled out the show’s cancellation. But I’m more interested in looking at Los Espookys as a uniquely culturally hybrid production, and not just as a Latino one.
As critics and the show’s production team have articulated in the past, part of the magic of Los Espookys lies in the amorphous setting the shows take place in.
“We realized it would be set in this special place, like Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Jorge Zambrano, the show’s production designer, told Cat Cardenas for Rolling Stone earlier this year. “In Macondo, you can see a rain of flowers, or a baby being carried away by ants. In Los Espookys, everything is possible. The idea was that this place could be found everywhere in Latin America.”
Even though I find Marquez’s brand of magical realism as short-hand for the show’s fantastical elements a bit tired, I understand where Zambrano was coming from, especially given that the cast is made up by salvadoreños, panameños, mexicanos, and americanos alike. Conversely, I believe that the fantastical elements of the show are a product of the real cultural dynamics of both Latin America and The United States. As García Márquez once said said, “I am only a notary of reality. There are real things that I have to throw away because I know they cannot be believed.”
That hyper-specific yet generalized Latin American sensibility made for some of the show’s funniest moments. Bits such as Tati, played by Ana Fabrega, becoming the main attraction of a seaside town by dressing up as Marilyn Monroe and bellowing “yabba-dabba-doo!” was excellent (and not spiritually far off from when the Mexican government introduced four manatees to a freshwater canal in Mexico City when a lily plague even prevented the gondolas from circulating through the canals or when ex-Peruvian president’s alleged infidelity became the subject of the song of the summer, globally.)
The Panini album – a sticker album for teams in the World Cup – that was refashioned as a sticker book for Latin American beauty queens, Mi Belleza Latina, which Renaldo – Espooky squad leader – carries around after he’s haunted by a deceased Belleza Latina, was a great touch. “Mi puta suegra” (“My fucking mother in law”), the show that plays in the background for most of season 2 about a fastidious mother-in-law, could’ve been housed by the same network as “¡No les tocaba!”
Sure, some of the jokes may appear niche to a strictly American audience. But, interestingly, the geographic counterpoint for the show’s vague Latin American setting is The United States. One of the best performances on the show is delivered by Greta Titelman, who plays the role of Melanie Gibbons, the U.S. Ambassador who yearns to be transferred to the Miami post (Gibbons is later informed by U.S. Secretary of State, Kimberly, played by Kim Petras, that Miami – contrary to popular belief – is actually part of The United States).
Tico, played by co-creator Fred Armisen, is another distinctly American character. Renaldo's uncle, Tico is a valet parking prodigy that lives in Los Angeles with his daughter, the dictionary definition of la prima tóxica, and engages in hyper-specific aspects of L.A. culture – a star-studded city couched in a large Latin American diaspora. Both him and his daughter speak almost exclusively in English.
Furthermore, the only intelligible language that the water-demon-character speaks is English, which it learns from its time working for ambassador Gibbons – not from watching The King’s Speech ad nauseam.
“Happy Friday!” says the water demon in a peppy and contrived voice, as Ambassador Gibbons scurries to meet Secretary of State Kimberly, who is there to secure the reelection of the corrupt and exploitative president in order to secure U.S. interests. The demon’s statement is greeted with applause from the embassy’s staff, composed mostly of a millennial staff wearing what seem like matching linen sets from Bonobos.
When the show first launched, Fred Armisen said, “It’s not as if people haven’t heard of Latino culture before… it’s a part of American culture. It’s a shorthand with everyone.”
As it was the case, Los Espookys spun on many cultural axes at once, capitalizing on the most hyperbolic characteristics of American and Latin American culture. In this way, the show did orbit The United States, or at least its idea of it. It reflected American culture back to itself, replete with specters of its histories – old, new, tropicalized, packed with outlandish scenarios, and full of Latinos.
Los Espookys might have been for everyone, but it felt like it was about all of us.
Dispatches from the Mexican miscellanea…
This year, Televisa’s once-in-a-generation-hit teen telenovela, Rebelde made a comeback, literally. But the news of their reunion was eclipsed by cast-member Anahí performing the hit “Sálvame” with Colombian reggaetón star, Karol G, and the show’s reference in Bad Bunny & Chencho Corleone’s “Me porto bonito.”
I found Iñárritu’s film Bardo, save for its fun dancehall scenes, incredibly tedious in its revision of history and in its exploration of a dual Mexican and American sensibility.
Earlier this year, I returned to Kyle Chayka’s concept of Airspace to review the HBO Max TV show, Amsterdam. Set in the eponymous tree-lined street of Mexico City, the show felt like a wet dream of the American occupation of Roma and Condesa. As the development of made-to-stream global TV expands, we’ll likely witness the Airbnfication of cities on the small screen.
Until next time,
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