The best workplace comedy I have seen in years is not set in a typical corporate office. “Los Espookys,” an HBO series created by comedians Julio Torres, Ana Fabrega and Fred Armisen, is about people who are trying to follow their passion. In this case, that passion is creating supernatural horror scenes.
“Los Espookys” is the name of the business run by a group of four friends. They create fake horror for clients including a priest who wants to stage an exorcism when his personal popularity begins to sag, a mysterious woman who wants a “standard inheritance scare,” and a researcher who needs to showcase real aliens for the success of her government presentation.
The show takes place in an unnamed Latin American country where the supernatural is normal, a place where a blonde U.S. ambassador can be bribed and then trapped in a mirror world by accident when a staged scare goes wrong. It’s like our world, upside down. Serious creativity conflicts between business partners Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco) and his more pragmatic counterparts, Andrés (Torres) and Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), unfold while they wear the remainders of green paint from a job. The comedy is that, no matter how “out there” a client request may seem, the team takes on the challenge seriously and sincerely.
But the show’s surreal premise also offers real truths about work and how your relationship with it can become imbalanced.
The gig economy is already strange. The show highlights this.
Horror is not the passion of Tati (Fabrega), the fourth business partner and the eccentric sister of levelheaded Úrsula, but she tags along with Los Espookys anyway. Tati becomes the group’s main test subject, whom they dress up as a sea monster or the possessed girl in need of an exorcism. Being part of the group is just one of Tati’s many side gigs, and Fabrega’s performance is a standout on the show. Tati is a lost yet determined individual; for her various side gigs, she manually spins a fan to cool the priest, turns the arms of a clock, breaks in shoes for their owners, joins a nutrition scam and serves as a human FitBit, counting steps for an unnamed client.
If you’ve worked a low-paying, highly demanding gig, you may recognize yourself in Tati’s hustle. At one point she laments to Andrés, “You all know what you’re doing with your lives but... What am I doing? Where am I going? I can’t break in shoes. I can’t count steps. I can’t help people lose, gain, or maintain weight. I can’t keep time. I fail at everything I try.”
The most difficult job Tati gets involved with is also the show’s most realistic. By agreeing to sell nutritional supplements, Tati ends up owing 200,000 pesos to Hierbalite, a pyramid scheme that relies on recruiting vulnerable individuals. “I’m my own boss, setting my own hours, and paying myself what I’m worth,” is the pitch Hierbalite CEO Mark Stevens gives to his prey. Sound familiar? Fabrega has said the company is a purposeful nod to Herbalife, a multilevel marketing scheme that targets Latinos and in 2016 settled with the Federal Trade Commission, paying some $200 million to people who lost money based on false earnings promises.
What Tati is willing to do for work does not follow the typical logic of people who want to make money, but a lot of capitalism can be inexplicable and strange. Under limitless capitalism, someone’s fortune often comes at someone else’s direct expense.
What I most enjoy about Tati’s continual search for purpose is that it is rooted in a refusal to participate in the status quo. She cheerfully tunes out the frequency most of us operate on. “I experience the past, present and future at the same time,” Tati says to explain her actions.
It reminds me of a similarly rooted performance cited in critic Jenny Odell’s book, “How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” Odell recalls a 2008 performance piece that Finnish artist Pilvi Takala set in an accounting firm, which she joined under a false name as a marketing trainee. In this hustling work environment, Takala would sit at an empty desk and stare into space. When asked what she was doing, she would say she was doing “thought work.” She rode the elevators up and down to “see things from a different perspective.” Her actions made other coworkers uneasy and resulted in them sending “importance: high” office emails about her behavior.
“At their loftiest, such refusals [to follow the status quo] can signify the individual capacity for self-directed action against the abiding flow; at the very least, they interrupt the monotony of the everyday,” Odell writes.
Doing the job for yourself is a timeless lesson
If you’ve ever met one of your idols and found they fell short in real life, you know that wanting a relationship to be something it isn’t is a familiar career disappointment.
For Renaldo, the optimistic goth of Los Espookys team, this experience comes with a long-awaited opportunity to work as a makeup artist with his hero, American film director Bianca Nova. Renaldo is the soft heart of the show who takes extra jobs with difficult clients, fights to get a visa for a trip to the U.S. and eventually leaves Los Espookys, all to work with Bianca. But she turns out to be a brusque and demanding director who sees feedback as unhelpful criticism. She purposefully calls him Reynaldo, even after he corrects her. He stays positive and bears through it, telling her how her movie “The Woman With No Eye” changed his life. She brutally cuts off this offering of vulnerability, telling him, “I do not have time to be burdened with your feelings.”
After this verbal dressing-down, Bianca’s colleague Jacqueline gives Renaldo a reality check. The work that earned Bianca icon status among horror fans “was a group effort,” Jacqueline says. “It took an army to execute her brilliance. An army of faceless little helpers that made it happen. You have to ask yourself: Do you want to be a gear in the Bianca machine?”
He does not. “I am here just living someone else’s dream,” Renaldo tells Bianca when he informs her he is leaving to go back to doing his own spooks with his friends. It’s the lesson each of the members of Los Espookys comes to realize in their own way. And one that we can, too.