[This story contains mild spoilers for season one of Hazbin Hotel.]
“On paper, there’s a lot of people that might say no to something like this — a very raunchy animated musical comedy world written by a young woman,” Hazbin Hotel star Stephanie Beatriz tells The Hollywood Reporter. But for the Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Encanto actress, showrunner Vivienne Medrano’s “weird, cool, fantastical imagination” has produced a series that is not only “delightfully horny, unhinged and ridiculous,” but uniquely special beyond its “small minutiae of cock jokes.
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“It somehow manages to have this throughline of true gay love and this very big idea about whether it’s possible to redeem a soul, to change after being damned for all time,” she says of A24’s first foray into animation and Prime Video’s latest push into the medium’s R-rated adult space. “I just love Vivienne’s world-building.”
Broadway star and lead voice actress Erika Henningsen offers similar praise. “Every moment is so chock-full to the brim with nuance and detail,” she tells THR. “I cannot akin it to anything that exists currently because it is its own world. And that’s what excited me about the project. It’s so rare to walk into something that is truly original and fresh, with a unique perspective and musically intimate, vulnerable moments — but that’s also laugh-out-loud funny.”
Born from concepts Medrano had been working on since her school days, Hazbin Hotel — currently rolling out the first of two seasons — centers around the princess of hell, Charlie (Henningsen), desperate to save her subjects from being murdered en mass in an annual culling orchestrated by heaven. To help prove their worth to the angels above, Charlie opens the Hazbin Hotel, a place where demons can work to reform their sinful behavior.
“The hotel itself is just deliciously rich with detail — the windows, the wallpaper, the books on the shelves. The jokes that you see all around,” Beatriz shares. “It’s like looking at a piece of art. If you stare at a [Mark] Rothko [painting] for 20 to 30 minutes, you’re going to see more and more. And not to compare this show to Rothko, but the animation is very layered.”
To help fund, build and run her hotel, Charlie recruits a host of underworld citizens, including her lesbian girlfriend Vaggie (Beatriz), porn star Angel Dust (Blake Roman) and Alastor, the “Radio Demon” (Amir Talai). Through each of these characters, Medrano ushers musical animation into new territory, expands the R-rated comedy genre, and explores complex themes around the influence of media and technology, sex work, and religion alongside questions about what means to be good, bad and find redemption.
“Life is lived in the gray. That’s the journey that Charlie comes to over the season,” Henningsen says. “She’s always for forgiveness, but I do think she sometimes sees the world in black and white and the real world is not that. So the thing that we do in earnest because it’s the right thing sometimes comes at other people’s expense. What if what she thinks is right is potentially not? What if there is no right or wrong? What if there is just listening to people and maintaining a sense of integrity?”
Even in the world of adult animation — which is increasingly home to series like Blue Eye Samurai, Scavengers Reign, Harley Quinn, BoJack Horseman, Invincible and Praise Petey — Hazbin Hotel is in uncharted space that could make it a hard sell. That was especially true in 2019, when Medrano debuted her original, self-funded pilot on YouTube. But castmembers swear by the show’s themes — despite some of being R-rated in nature — and what their show is doing in the medium.
“Hazbin Hotel believes that no matter what choices you’ve made, or what your background is, you deserve a second chance. That to me is not an R-rated concept. The themes are adult, but the way that they are discussed is with nuance and care. It’s never gratuitous or superfluous,” Henningsen says. “In these super adult moments of growth and transformation, you will see yourself in these characters.”
Part of that is because of how Medrano has shaped characters, each into their own exploration of specific, and often complex, human issues, tied together by an interrogation of what makes something — or someone — sinful. When discussing her attraction to portraying Vaggie, the show’s “straight man, that’s not quite straight,” Beatriz celebrated her character’s ability to “ground everybody, but also have these moments of deep intimacy and vulnerability.
“A lot of us externally, we’re polite. We’re kind. We do all the right things. But internally, we’re struggling with feelings of guilt, self-hatred, intrusive and depressive, terrible thoughts. We judge ourselves a lot. It’s part of being a human, asking, ‘Do I measure up to the people around me? Do I measure up to what society tells me I’m supposed to be?'” Beatriz says. “Viewers get to see [Vaggie’s] internal struggle, and one of the most interesting things about that is, what happens when you feel like that internally, but have somebody that’s good and in love with you? Is that, in and of itself, enough to redeem you?”
It’s the kind of concept Beatriz tells THR is even tucked into Vaggie’s weapon-wielding Sailor Moon-esque character design, which includes a face partially obstructed by her hair and an eye patch. “This signals to the audience that something’s going on, something else is happening, we just don’t know what that thing is yet,” she says.
There’s something else happening beneath the surface of Roman’s Angel Dust as well, although, here, the concept of badness leans toward how the sex worker, and one of the show’s most vulnerable members of the underworld, grapples with others’ assumptions about his line of employ.
“The thing about Angel that struck me the most is his fierce independence, and that undoubtedly comes from an intense need to be free from people judging him; people trying to take advantage of him; people coming to conclusions about what his personality is before they even know him,” Roman says. “There are ways in which Angel Dust tries to control the narrative and control people by giving in to their assumptions, and he uses that to his own advantage.”
Roman’s voice work helps capture what Angel — a character that possesses “various multitudes” — is not only up against but how his character navigates (and survives) that.
“We had scenes where I had to voice and record a bunch of sex noises, and then later on, have a very intimate, or very emotional conversation that doesn’t lie in any performative spectrum,” he explains. “There’s the side of Angel that is on when he’s on camera, and there’s the side of Angel that sometimes the door cracks open, and you see a whole different version. What is that inflection? What’s the vocal?”
For Talai’s Alastor — an Overlord of Hell who rules alongside other media and technology-related demons — instead of vulnerability, his voice teases something more powerful and frightening. “The old-timey radio voice is, at least in my circles of improv comedians and sketch comedy, a stock character,” he tells THR. “What’s difficult here is playing with what’s going on underneath. He is a sinister, powerful overlord in hell, so when do you see those cracks? How does that show itself? He never lets the smile drop, but when do you let the pleasantness drop?”
Alastor also calls upon audiences to reflect on what can be perceived as a different societal ill: the power of media and technology. Radio, television — and even more so today, the internet — can be perceived and even twisted by humans into something hellish. Combined with the series’ more biblical elements, Alastor asks viewers to examine their own beliefs and to question the nature of the conduits through which they are shared.
“The Bible is viewed variously as an ancient text rooted in ancient times, and for other people, it’s viewed as a living text that shines light on everyday life,” he says. “The Bible was the media of however many centuries ago. Now, people will refer to a showrunners’ bible. People say, ‘Eat, Pray, Love. That’s my bible.’ People are using major texts as their own bibles, and they’re holding them up, sometimes when maybe they shouldn’t. Or they’re reinterpreting them in ways that maybe they shouldn’t, ways that the author may not have intended. So what Vivienne’s doing is sort of slyly encouraging people to interrogate their own bibles.”
Through its characters and storylines, Hazbin Hotel uses raunchy comedy and a hellish setting to confront the dangers around man-made issues — sex work, religion, technology — with assiduousness. It’s what voice star Roman loves about the Prime Video show.
“There are a ton of places that we’re able to go through this medium when we’re not restricted to a specific audience, when we’re pandering toward everybody and anybody whose willing to see the humanity and authenticity in situations and characters,” he says. “Hazbin Hotel understands that in order to go to places that really need to be talked about — to be accessed and conveyed — you’re going to need to make people uncomfortable. You’re going to have to press the boundaries of what people are OK with.”
A penis joke, or two, can seemingly help in that. “In this world of cookie-cutter art, and stuff that’s mass marketed to reach as many people as possible,” says Talai, “it’s cool to have a show and company go do something fucking weird.”
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