Back in 2019, a quirky full television length animation released on Youtube called Hazbin Hotel. It had a very antiquated style not unlike many “golden age” cartoons between the 1930s and 1960s, known for jankier animation, bold and vibrant colors, and often singing or musical numbers. Cuphead, a 2017 video game that also got a television adaptation, shares a similar style in emulating older cartoons. Produced by webcomic artist Vivienne “VivziePop” Medrano, it immediately skyrocketed to the top of viewership and interest among animation nerds for having extremely well-done animation, excellent voice acting, and an interesting musical interlude halfway through the episode. The premise was also something of interest in the genre of “adult animation”, as it had to do with the Princess of Hell trying to rehabilitate sinners so they can avoid being culled by angels due to overpopulation in Hell.
With such a huge response and various crowdfunding and merchandising efforts that began after its release, folks thought it might make its way to a full series, especially after independent studio A24 picked them up. But it would take almost four years for the first season of the show to develop to be published by Amazon on their Prime Video service, much of which I assume was due to COVID, but also because Medrano’s own SpindleHorse Toons, whom produced the pilot, was also producing and airing a season of Helluva Boss, a series set in the same universe but with different characters. I’ve seen a great many crowdfunded and merchandised projects fizzle out after their creators say they ran out of money and then they disappear, so I was skeptical this one would actually get finished. Fortunately, it did get finished, and the end result is a mostly-positive, very well-produced, but rough-around-the-edges show that holds promise for more if they choose.
The first episode of the season drops you in without any mention of the pilot, or the characters you see. It does provide an explanation for Heaven and Hell’s major players, the de facto “Adam & Eve” story, with Lilith, and how the players took their positions. But to not offer the pilot on Amazon as part of the season or maybe summarize it in the first episode makes for another one of those “you had to have known about it” scenarios. There is kind of a lot of that with these eight episodes that reflects somewhat its weaker writing. To someone who has not seen the pilot, it’s fairly easy to grasp the character of Charlie Morningstar. She is a bubbly, cheerful, always-optimistic-even-when-being-yelled-at child of Hell’s head honcho. Her girlfriend, Vaggie, is also fairly non-descript to start. But then you have “The Porn Star” Angel Dust, “The Bartender” Husk, “The Maid” Niffty, and “The General Manager” Alastor. Pilot or no pilot, you’d be convinced at the start that this series intends to be a sort of sin-of-the-week revolving door of Hell’s denizens trying, and failing, to change their ways.
So by the end of the first episode you understand Hell is about to get their shit kicked in again in six months, but the show carries onwards by revolving around various sets of characters. You have Charlie’s group in the hotel, The Vees, a group of overlords who control television media, Carmilla Carmine who sells weapons, and a couple other cartels of sorts. Helluva Boss has some influence in this as it kind of fleshed out Hell’s denizens before this series aired, but it focuses on these major players who have some connections to each other. It’s in these next few episodes though where you get some of the show’s best character episodes, and musical performances. Almost all of that comes down to the Broadway talent they amassed for this show. Erika Henningsen and Alex Brightman, playing the show’s two opposing characters Charlie and Adam, are big in the Broadway scene, as well as Jeremy Jordan who comes in midway as Lucifer himself and commands an amazing performance throughout, and many others. They also managed to snag Keith David as Husk, whom you know in numerous animation roles like The President in Rick and Morty. One of the biggest animation VA names in there is Stephanie Beatriz as Vaggie, who was Mirabel in Encanto, a star on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and most recently, the live-action Twisted Metal. When you consider the caliber of talent alongside everything else, you kind of sympathize with four years and however much money went into this. Problem is, can that continue?S-s-s-spoilers!
It was fairly obvious from the pilot onward that the conflict between Heaven and Hell was going to be central focus here. But it also felt like maybe that would be something that came after a lot of ancillary exploration of Hell’s denizens through the hotel. A season or two of Charlie trying, and mostly failing, to convert some of Hell’s worst debauchery. Between Hazbin and Helluva, you might’ve thought it’d be like Big Mouth and Human Resources. Instead, this season went full throttle into the big battle, culminating in the season finale being a huge blow to Heaven with Adam. I thought this to be a little all gas and no brakes given how we spent the last four years sort of building ourselves up on what this might look like. Obviously we hadn’t met Adam or his posse, or Seraphim, so we couldn’t have envisioned this battle, but for it to kinda ramp up and then down in just one episode, it was very cool to watch, but you couldn’t help but feel like there needed to be more. Especially the fight between Alastor and Adam. You have a self-proclaimed omega overlord going up against the first man in what felt like a pretty even match until Adam broke his microphone and slashed him up a bit? I guess I just expected a little more from our deer friend in that fight, and it ended up becoming a Lucifer v. Adam fight in the end, which was fine, but entirely predictable in biblical terms.
Truth be told, I don’t think Adam is actually dead, and I kind of hope he isn’t, anyway. Damned to Hell maybe, held in some kind of limbo, made to be a hotel guest and annoyed by everyone, it just seems like it’s way too easy to take out the first man in the first season. I am very curious what Lilith is doing by the beach in Heaven though, and how taking out Adam was supposedly her plan. Did she just Taylor Swift a bitch? Was she looking to gain his position? Is she a turncoat? Fuck the last four years, we need an answer on a second season and one that is coming pretty damn soon!
And then there is Alastor. So little was revealed about our deer radio demon in both the pilot and this season, other than he seemingly owns Husk’s soul, and based on this final song interlude, someone owns him too. Between that tidbit and his eight-year absence still unexplained, I want to suspect that Lilith may have something to do with him, though he may not realize it. In the fifth episode, Mimzy mentions that the two of them used to roll around the same scenes together when they were alive, which suggests to me they were alive during the early 20th century, probably during the Roaring Twenties. Their deaths and banishment to Hell could have either been mob violence, or reactions to The Great Depression. I don’t know how much past lives connect to their Hellsonas, but perhaps they’ll elaborate more on that as the show goes on.
And speaking of the show going on, what will a second season look like? With a newly-renovated hotel, and what looks to be Lucifer having his own penthouse on one side with Alastor’s tower on the other, will the show be settling in for more of those aforementioned demon-redemption-of-the-week stories? Or will it just dive headfirst into the next conflict with Heaven? How will Sir Pentious the Redeemed fair in Heaven? Will Angel find his sister in Heaven, or are him (them?) and Husk just going to shack up?
Given everything that went down this season, my chief complaint with this show/season is that the writing felt too rushed and lacking finer details. Some characters got some backstory and development, others did not. Husk and Niffty, both serving at the pleasure of Alastor, don’t really get a spotlight while Angel gets a very traumatic spotlight (and good dance number) as well as Vaggie getting a big lore drop. It coalesces well into the season finale, but it feels like the writers and showrunners were not confident A24 and Amazon would pick them up for a second season, so they made it as self-contained as possible with a few teasers for a next season should they be greenlit. I hate that streaming television is like this now, and it’s something we’ve seen in Japanese animation as well. Solid opening 1-2 episodes, mediocre filler-arc trash for the middle, and then epic slam-jam in the final 1-2 episodes. It’s why I wish there were a better platform for indie animation projects where they didn’t have to worry about being cancelled for tax writeoffs by shit-stains like Zaslov and could focus on quality plots and animation. But then I am a bit confused how Helluva Boss got bankrolled and made-to-air online without that threat but Hazbin Hotel has to play by Amazon’s rules. I don’t want to accuse Medrano of being a sellout, since we know Amazon doesn’t pay out as much as they probably should for their platforms and heavy-hitting shows making them cash (looking at you, The Boys and Invincible). They saw the pilot, they saw the reaction and fanbase. Order three more seasons now, you fucking cowards. Make western animation great again.