'Hazbin Hotel' Review: YouTube Pilot Struggles as Amazon Show

‘Hazbin Hotel’ Review: YouTube Pilot Struggles as Amazon Show

The animated comedy “Hazbin Hotel” has a feel-good backstory belied by its grim premise: a horde of demons suffer eternal damnation in Hell, their ranks periodically culled in mass exterminations led by armies from Heaven. Creator Vivienne Medrano, founder of YouTube channel VivziePop, independently produced the pilot with money from her Patreon, and posted it to the streaming site in 2019. Over 90 million views later, the concept has been picked up by the ultra-prestigious studio A24, built out into an eight-episode season, and is now set to premiere on Amazon Prime Video. The musical series is the kind of original idea and grassroots success it’s easy to root for, especially when both are in ever-shorter supply on TV these days.

But while “Hazbin Hotel” has the aesthetic accomplishment one would expect of a longtime animator given the chance to realize her vision, it’s less successful in translating the pilot’s big, abstract ideas into a legible world with a cogent tone. As a prologue, protagonist Charlotte Morningstar (Erika Henningsen) gets us situated: she’s the Princess of Hell, the realm her parents Lilith and Lucifer (Jeremy Jordan) accidentally unleashed when they introduced free will to mankind via the tree of knowledge. (If you recall your Genesis, Lilith was Adam’s first wife, before Eve.) Both Lilith and Lucifer are now MIA, but Hell still has to endure annual assaults from Heaven to keep its potential power in check.

All this exposition is delivered over a striking montage that renders cutout silhouettes in a stripped-down color palette. Medrano is a veteran of DeviantArt, and you can see the virtual community’s influence in the series’ Gothic maximalism. Charlotte’s girlfriend, Vaggy (Stephanie Beatriz), sports a massive hair bow and a bright red X where one of her eyes should be; most characters have a ghostly pallor that pops against a backdrop of lush maroon. “Hazbin Hotel” has an unmistakable whiff of Hot Topic-core, a combination of macabre and twee — the hotel’s bartender is a winged, talking cat voiced by Keith David — it applies with creativity and commitment.

“Hazbin Hotel” pays much less attention to the details of its cosmology or main characters’ motivations. To help out the citizens of Hell, Charlie has founded the titular establishment, a kind of halfway house for rehabilitating wayward souls who can then earn entry into Heaven. Given everything we’ve just learned about Heaven and its adversarial attitude toward Hell, this sounds like an odd solution that ignores the real problem. (Would Heaven even take Charlie’s converts? Is everyone left in Hell supposed to endure the exterminations as they continue?) If “Hazbin Hotel” intends to critique Charlie’s plan, or even offer a dissenting opinion, there’s no trace of one in the five episodes screened for critics.

Such haziness extends to even basic aspects of how the “Hazbin Hotel” world works. Terms like “demon” and “sinner” are used interchangeably, though they seem to connote different things: a sinner is any soul sent to Hell for their misdeeds, while demons like hotel host Alastor (Amir Talai) act as kind of patron anti-saints of specific objects or ideas — in Alastor’s case, the radio. When Lucifer finally shows up, more than halfway through the season, his dynamic with Charlie looks nothing like what’s previously been described. And though “Hazbin Hotel” bills itself as a comedy, its musical numbers are disarmingly straightforward anthems about craving approval or success. They’re not irreverent or ironic…except when they occasionally are, leaving the viewer even more confused as to how they’re meant to feel about the series’ events.

Yet the most baffling aspect of “Hazbin Hotel” is the conventional, even slightly retrograde, morality of a show set in Hell. One of Charlie’s first charges, Angel Dust (Blake Roman), is a porn star in the thrall of an abusive pimp. (However this underworld’s economy functions, it apparently includes adult entertainment.) The wayward sex worker shown the light by a moral crusader is a trope straight out of a Victorian serial, but “Hazbin Hotel” simply recycles it without commentary. More broadly, “Hazbin Hotel” may position Heaven as cruel oppressors, but the show seems to share its view of Hell’s inhabitants.

Perhaps “Hazbin Hotel” wants to build from a sitcom that happens to take place in Hades to a more philosophical critique of how human lives are judged, like “The Good Place” did before it. But “The Good Place” signaled early on that something was amiss with its binary system, and any potential breadcrumbs “Hazbin Hotel” drops get lost in its chaotic, contradictory atmosphere. The show has come a long way from its bootstrapped beginnings, but not quite far enough to function as a full season of TV.

The first four episodes of “Hazbin Hotel” will stream on Amazon Prime Video on Jan. 19, with remaining episodes released in pairs on Fridays.