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Gay hamsters. A litigious elf. A cowgirl toilet. Welcome to Julio Torres' 'Fantasmas'

 Julio Torres in <em>Fantasmas, </em>which he also wrote and directed.
Monica Lek
Julio Torres in Fantasmas, which he also wrote and directed.

The Greek hero Jason famously sought the fabled Golden Fleece. His quest took him over land and sea, and forced him to confront six-armed giants, harpies, clashing rocks, a sleepless dragon, sirens, a huge bronze automaton and many other strange and thrilling perils.

Comedian Julio Torres, on the six-episode HBO series Fantasmas (which he also wrote and directed), embarks upon a similar quest. Only instead of seeking the pelt of a winged ram sired by Poseidon and the nymph Theophane which was said to bestow divine authority upon whomsoever possessed it, Torres goes looking for an earring he lost at a dance club.

Yet Torres' quest is no less mythic; it takes him through a colorful, dreamlike version of New York City created entirely on a soundstage. And his tale is just as discursive as Jason's, because he's forever brushing up against other New Yorkers who hijack the story for a few minutes at a time. Think of these character-focused vignettes as the series of strange Greek islands Jason visits on his travels. But instead of sirens and harpies, Torres' encounters, in no particular order: Gay cokehead hamsters, grasping social media influencers, a homewrecking alien puppet who in no way repeat in no way resembles ALF, a hilariously self-aware school bully, a toilet dressed up in cowgirl couture, the letter Q as an alt-comic who's way too niche for mainstream audiences, an elf suing Santa over labor violations, and really, trust me, just … so much more.

 Bowen Yang in <em>Fantasmas</em>.
Monica lLek / HBO
Bowen Yang in Fantasmas.

Sound like a lot? Too much? That’s kind of the point. Fantasmas is stuffed with outsized characters and absurd situations that have no business cohering — that would, on any other show, jostle selfishly for our attention, elbowing themselves to the front. But that’s not the case here, because every aspect of the series first passes through the filter of Torres' comic sensibility. That sensibility turns out to be a bracingly offbeat and intensely idiosyncratic one; nobody else vibrates at his specific frequency. Over the course of the series' six episodes, the resolutely weird tone proves flexible enough to admit welcome variations, but it never wavers.

The world Torres has created here is a hermetically sealed one, walled off from our mundane reality even as it critiques various features of it, from the institutional demand for official documentation ("Proof of Existence") to white privilege to the gig economy.

And where Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece featured lots of celebrity cameos — Medea, Heracles, Orpheus, Zeus, Aphrodite – Torres brings his own pantheon of famous pals into the mix, both onscreen (Bowen Yang, Paul Dano, Steve Buscemi, Aidy Bryant, Ziwe, Julia Fox, Kim Petras) and off (Cole Escola and John Early voice those bitchy gay hamsters, Tilda Swinton embodies toilet water, James Scully voices a wall poster of a demonic Pomeranian no yeah look I said it was weird what do you want from me?).

If you've devoured Torres' work, as I have — he co-wrote the instantly and indelibly iconic SNL sketch "Wells for Boys,"co-created the series Los Espookys and wrote and directed last year's Problemista – you know what to expect from Fantasmas to some extent, both in its approach and in many of its particulars.

That's not a complaint; creators like Torres aren't workmanlike jacks-of-all-trades that studios could happily attach to any project. They're artists who tend to seize upon their personal obsessions, and as a result, themes recur.

Had Problemista been released back in August of 2023 as originally intended, we would have spent almost a full year away from Torres' singular comedy mind. But the SAG-AFTRA strike delayed that film's release; it finally arrived in theaters this past March.

So it's only been a handful of months since we last visited Planet Torres, and walked among the verdant forests of his pet fixations: Uncaring institutions (banks, credit cards, hospitals), the hidden essences of objects, hypochondria, the monetization of art, a weirdly specific revulsion at filling out online forms, etc.

Now, me? I’m happy to revisit Torres' world as often as possible. But it’s true that watching Fantasmas so hard on the heels of Problemista leaves you with a sense of having just left a charming, trippy, disorienting party, realizing you forgot your phone, and walking back into the same riot of color, sound and fascinating people that you haven’t been away from long enough to miss.

But still: It is a great party — fun, blithely strange, exultantly queer and packed with folks you love spending time with. Why not grab yourself another drink, while you’re here?

Copyright 2024 NPR

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.