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In ‘Fantasmas,’ Julio Torres gives us another sweet, weird comedy

Julio Torres with a phone to his ear.
Julio Torres is the star and mastermind of “Fantasmas,” debuting Friday on HBO.
(Monica Lek / HBO)
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While seeking to preserve its prestige with the next “Game of Thrones” or “Succession,” HBO will occasionally provide the more valuable service of throwing money at what might best be called an art project — John Lurie’s “Painting With John,” Terence Nance’s “Random Acts of Flyness,” Nathan Fielder’s “The Rehearsal.”

A woman in a white suit standing near a couch.
Martine Gutierrez plays Vanesja, Julio’s sidekick in “Fantasmas.”
(Atsushi Nishijima / HBO)

The network’s latest mad wager, premiering Friday at 11 p.m. Pacific (also streaming on Max), is Julio Torres’ “Fantasmas” — his last was “Los Espookys,” co-created with Fred Armisen and Ana Fabrega, canceled after two seasons — an absurdist queer comedy that comes on like Luis Buñuel by way of Gregg Araki. Written, directed and starring Torres, it’s a sweet work of loving weirdness that feels at once abstract and personal. It works on me like Thu Tran’s “Food Party,” Duncan Trussell and Pen Ward’s “The Midnight Gospel,” “Joe Pera Talks With You,” “At Home With Amy Sedaris” (who appears here) and “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” — shows that may not all run for years but which burn brightly while they do. Higher praise I cannot bestow.

Torres, a former writer and performer for “Saturday Night Live” who also wrote, directed and starred in the 2023 film “Problemista,” stars here as a version of himself — which is to say a writer and an actor who makes, or attempts to make a living in show business, which presents him mostly with bad choices. (His own ideas — a remake of “The Lion King” from the point of view of a zebra, a reboot of the tooth fairy as an addiction story — are not especially promising.)

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His greater job, however, is as “a Julio … I wake up, and I just sort of Julio.” (This includes consulting with Crayola on a clear crayon he’d call … Fantasmas.) He’s in his mid-30s but comes across as determinedly ageless; his air is deadpan, confused, often frustrated. He is sometimes inspired to make a poor choice, but, as with the silent comedians of old, the universe will contrive to save him.

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There are through lines to the series, involving the loss of and search for an earring; the necessity of finding a new place to live; and Julio’s concern and fretting over a birthmark that he insists on calling a mole. (Torres is a melanoma survivor.) There’s his attempt to acquire “proof of existence” — he can’t rent an apartment or even ride the subway without it — which he refuses to apply for. He investigates a service that promises to make him incorporeal, to “get rid of the burden of having a body” — because of that “mole,” I guess.

Helping or hindering him in these pursuits are his femme fatale all-purpose agent Vanesja (Martine Gutierrez) and robot assistant Bibo (voiced by Joe Rumrill), who eventually will conceive a desire to act. (Bibo asks Julio for a raise to afford acting lessons, head shots “and a Soho House membership to mingle with industry insiders.”) These arcs snake in and around a variety of tangentially or unrelated short stories — “sketches” would not do them justice — which might work their way into other stories down the line. Some are horror stories, some have a tinge of film noir. Some are framed as television shows. Some are oddly moving. Several will meet at the end, quite beautifully.

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There are dreams, but they are not essentially distinct from the rest of what we see. The sets are mere suggestions of sets. Projections, meant to look like projections, supply the backdrops of street scenes and subway platforms.

A man in an elf hat sitting in a courtroom witness stand.
Bowen Yang as an elf suing Santa Claus in “Fantasmas.”
(Monica Lek / HBO)

Along the way, we’ll meet Bowen Yang as an elf suing Santa Claus for wages, presented as a “Court TV” broadcast; Aidy Bryant pitching dresses for toilets; a nightclub for gay hamsters, “where they could walk in, dance, misbehave and forget about the tedious endless loop of their exercise wheel,” and also a hamster CVS; mermaids staffing a call center; a little blue Smurf-like figurine that becomes Julio’s inept social media director; an abusive executive goldfish; and Paul Dano in a sexualized parody of “ALF.”

Emma Stone (an executive producer), Rachel Dratch, Cole Escola and Rosie Perez appear as “The True Women of New York,” a “Real Housewives” parody. Kate Berlant plays an actor playing a theme-park version of a bisexual superhero (“I went to Juilliard,” we hear her think), who gets involved with a fan whose life the character changed (Spike Einbinder, sibling of Hannah). Steve Buscemi embodies the letter Q, too avant-garde for his place in the alphabet — he should be with W, X, Y and Z, not between P and R — and angry about it.

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“There’s no market for weird,” says Q. But to judge by the very existence of “Fantasmas,” there is.

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