Fantasmas S1E1 Recap: Clear Crayons, Q, Cookies & Spaghetti

Julio looks at an earring in a case
Photograph by Monica Lek/HBO

The following recap contains spoilers for Fantasmas S1E1, “Cookies and Spaghetti” (written and directed by Julio Torres)

According to Julio (Julio Torres), “fantasmas” means ghosts, which is true if we’re translating Spanish to English. Of course, we’re dealing with the same etymological root with this word as with “fantasy” or “phantasm,” and I think it’s worth noting how the term connotes something illusory—an apparition, perhaps. “Ghost” might bring to mind something more substantial. It has a different etymology, related more to breath than vision. But I’m not trying to make a distinction intended to carry a lot of weight. These meanings are pretty well jumbled by the history of language. Still, I’d feel inclined to push back along these lines if any overzealous translator decided to change the title of Julio Torres’s new HBO series from Fantasmas to Ghosts.

There is a dreamlike quality to the premiere of Fantasmas, which I expect to continue through its run. Nothing feels quite real, but that’s not to say it’s fake. What is the reality of a dream or a fantasy?

Bibi, a small robot, in a living room
Photograph by Atsushi Nishijima/HBO

The world we’re thrown into is clearly not our own. We’re probably in the future, since Julio has a robot assistant named Bibo (Joe Rumrill), but that doesn’t feel like the point. Maybe we’ll learn that there are dystopian requirements to getting a Proof of Existence, or maybe it will be largely equivalent to what it takes to get a Real ID. Either way, Julio doesn’t have one. He’s resisting the expectations of a reality that threatens to close in on him.

This would be my straightforward interpretation of Julio’s dream, or at least the end of it: the walls are closing in, and his only way out is to take off his fancy hat, put on a boring puffer coat, and blend in with nondescript others walking through the snow. I’ll be curious to see what Julio learns from the Dream Analysis Kit he’s planning to submit, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t include something along these lines—Julio is feeling pressure to conform.

Julio gets the Dream Analysis Kit from Chester (Tomas Matos), though Chester’s main gig is driving for a ride-sharing app where they would seem to be the only driver. It’s not an Uber; it’s a Chester. One wonders about the logistics, but I get the impression that Chester is perhaps still “working” for Uber but then trying to shuffle people to their own thing. I’m not sure how much it matters.

You can sketch the outline of a plot from Fantasmas S1E1. Julio keeps ignoring envelopes marked URGENT. Bibo finally reads one of the letters and tells Julio that he’s going to lose his apartment because the building is going to be turned into a General Mills Residency. That’s going to be a problem.

But what makes Fantasmas enjoyable doesn’t really have to do with its plot. This lies in the show’s colorful characters and in the weird vignettes that form most of its premiere episode.

First, we have the sitcom that plays in the backseat of Chester’s car: Melf. It starts as a clear send-up of Alf, with a large puppet named Melf (Marc Petrosino) appearing in a family’s living room one night. Melf loves to eat cookies and spaghetti, but Melf also falls in love with the father of this clan, Jeff (Paul Dano). The two begin to have an affair, which they hide from Jeff’s wife, Nancy (Sunita Mani), until she finds them making out in a closet one day.

Jeff and Nancy get divorced. Tabloids flash on screen about how an alien has stolen a man from his wife, and then we cut to 17 years later to see Toast (River L. Ramirez) come to visit Jeff to inform him of Toast’s impending marriage. Jeff fumbles over the fact that Toast is marrying a woman, and Toast says that Melf won’t be welcome at the wedding. Then, Melf returns with groceries, Jeff steps out to unload the car, and Melf and Toast have a laugh about eating cookies and spaghetti.


A couple of things here. I purposefully avoided pronouns as I wrote the last couple of paragraphs because I don’t think Melf’s gender is made clear, and I don’t want to make presumptions when it comes to Toast. River L. Ramirez uses they/them pronouns, so perhaps that would have been safe, but there is a difference between the character and the actor, after all.

More to the point, while this Melf sequence in Fantasmas S1E1 is absurd in a lot of ways—Julio seems to speed-run the entire series over the course of a few minutes in Chester’s car, for example—I do think it employs Melf to interrogate questions about gender. And I’m not claiming that there’s a thesis here. Indeed, what makes Fantasmas distinctive is how it operates in a space of play.

Nancy, Melf, and Jeff at a kitchen table
Photograph by Atsushi Nishijima/HBO

More about gender comes into play in Amina’s (Eudora Peterson) Episode 1 storyline. As a schoolteacher, she ends up using the Boys bathroom one day after hours and notices a bit of penis graffiti that lodges itself in her brain as a question. This penis seems to be turned away in shame. Who drew it, and why?

We get the answer in the form of a bully named Michael (Jeter Rivera). In an honest and vulnerable moment, he tells Amina that while she sees him as a jerk, he’s actually a jerk so that he’s seen. She hugs him, but the other students notice so he pushes her away, calls her a bitch, and then pushes another student to the floor.

In itself, this would amount to a “hurt people hurt people” moment that might feel like a bit of a cliché, but Fantasmas redoubles it once Amina returns home. Her boyfriend (Bardia Salimi) whines about how she’s talking to him, and Amina sees the ashamed penis drawing superimposed over his body as he lies on their bed. Now we have something to think about with regard to feigned “masculinity” in the absence of confident masculinity.

Again, no thesis here; we’re in a state of play.

When Amina and Julio share a Chester, she asks him what he does, in parallel to how she’s a teacher. His response is that he Julios. His agent, Vanesja (Martine Gutierrez)—who Julio says is a performance artist he hired to be his “agent” but who has been doing it so long she’s become an actual agent—elaborates. Today, Julio was a consultant for Crayola. Tomorrow, he’ll be consulting with NASA about new names for constellations. He has a special way of seeing the world.

We saw his session with Crayola at the top of “Cookies and Spaghetti.” It consisted of Julio being asked to make facial expressions for a series of colors (which all seemed pretty spot on, to be honest) and then suggesting that they make a clear crayon. Clear is a color. It’s around us all the time. Look at this glass of water.

The Crayola guys seem relatively into the idea but wonder what to call it. “Fantasmas,” Julio replies. Shouldn’t it be singular? Fine. But then the show’s title card drops to tell us he doesn’t really think so.

Julio with a hand to his face with the word Fantasmas written above him, in a promo image for the HBO series
Courtesy of HBO

Julio offers Amina another example of how he Julios as they share their ride: the letter Q comes too early in the alphabet. It should be later, with the other weirdos like X, Y, and Z. And, in another extended fantasy sequence, we see Q (Steve Buscemi) bombing as a musical act and being led to desperation. He’s thinking about selling out and becoming an O. X, Y, and Z become popular, and that just makes him feel worse, until Z (Evan Mock) gives him a shoutout on TV, saying they’d be nothing without the way Q paved the way, always remaining true to himself.

Somehow, I’m convinced by all of this. Julio is right. Q does come too soon in the alphabet. What an odd thing to be persuaded about.

Steve Buscemi as the letter Q playing a keyboard in a subway station
Photograph by Atsushi Nishijima/HBO

Through its first episode, Fantasmas is quirky, surreal, funny, and fun. Those are all different things! But the show blends them all together, and its style is what has me hooked more than anything else.

Julio will probably get evicted, and maybe he’ll have to get that Proof of Existence he doesn’t want to get, but I hope not. Either way, I hope Julio can keep Julio-ing. It feels good. It feels like there’s hope. Maybe that’s a fantasy, but this is Fantasmas.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

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