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'Los Espookys' review: Fred Armisen's surreal head trip that's mostly in Spanish

Valley Stream native Fred Armisen stars in HBO's

Valley Stream native Fred Armisen stars in HBO's "Los Espookys." Credit: HBO/Jennifer Clasen

SERIES "Los Espookys"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Friday at 11 p.m. on HBO.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Somewhere in a large Latin American city — unidentified here — is a group of friends, and self-styled anti-Ghostbusters, who create horrific situations (and comical creatures) for fun and mostly profit. They include Andrés (Julio Torres), heir to a chocolate fortune; Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco), a gore specialist; Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), a dental assistant, and her eccentric sister Tati (Ana Fabrega), who handles a number of particularly odd jobs for the group — mostly as a model of the bizarre monsters they create. Their friend, and Renaldo's uncle, Tico (Fred Armisen), may be the world's most skillful parking attendant. This six-parter — almost entirely in Spanish with English subtitles — was created by Valley Stream native Armisen, Torres and Fabrega. Lorne Michaels is an executive producer.

MY SAY Subtitles are the least of "Los Espookys" apparent problems. In fact, they're not a problem at all. We're used to reading and watching (and doing half a dozen other things at the same time) thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime and even HBO ("My Brilliant Friend," in Italian with English subtitles). In that regard, "Los Espookys" fits perfectly into our modern multi-tasking viewing lives.

Language is hardly a barrier either, certainly not for any one who is bilingual or for the rest of us who are not. You fall easily and quickly into the linguistic rhythms of "Los Espookys," and when it segues into English — as it rarely does — you're jolted out of the rhythm, as if something unusual or unwelcome just happened. "Los Espookys" is at its best — and most enjoyable — when in Spanish, and at its clunkiest, and least enjoyable, when in English.

So what then is that (apparent) issue? "Los Espookys" is not exactly funny — or funny in the terms most of us are accustomed, or even Armisen fans are accustomed. It doesn't play for laughs or punchlines, or setups or gags. There are a few running jokes — like the platinum blonde American ambassador who looks like she just stepped out of a Mary Kay catalog, or Tati's ongoing love affair with a cartoon prince on her cellphone (which grows stranger and stranger).

Instead, "Los Espookys" is a surreal head trip that unfolds on another plane of existence, and one that only sporadically interacts what might be considered our more conventional one. It's loopy and dada-esque, intent on dislodging the viewer just when he or she starts to get comfortable. "Los Espookys" demands that viewers accept it on its own terms — viewers, by the way, who are most likely readers in the first place, and still trying to figure out whether they've missed the joke in translation.

That's the problem, the chief one. But get past it (if you can) and "Los Espookys" then begins to work its charms, and to an extent its magic: The cast (and characters) is terrific, and engaging, and over a few episodes, their quirks become them. The surreal tangents become less surreal, and become woven into the fabric of the series. A town that depended on a wig-wearing owl for tourism? Sure, that makes perfect sense — in the world of "Los Espookys."

But what's best about "Los Espookys" is what's so immediately obvious — this is a complete original that puzzles and perplexes, and when least expected (that owl) even manages a few laughs.

BOTTOM LINE As what you'd expect from the mind of Fred Armisen — quirky, strange, at times off-putting, at other times, engaging, and full of puckish charm.

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