Saving Souls, Singing Songs

Hazbin Hotel: Pilot - "That's Entertainment"

I am not, by my nature, inclined towards musicals. This is something I have emphasized before, in previous reviews (where music and singing and dancing are all part and parcel for the story), but it’s worth mentioning here, again, because what we’re about to discuss is the first episode of what would, eventually, become a musical animated series: Hazbin Hotel. The show, created by Vivienne "VivziePop" Medrano (an animator who also ran her webcoming, Zoophobia), was originally developed as an independent pilot, “That’s Entertainment”, so that interest could be built for the series that would follow. It dropped on YouTube in 2019 and then… waiting.

It took a year, with the views steadily climbing up, for production studio A24 to come around and pick up the series for television. With the season starting production at that point, it was expected to arrive (somewhere) in 2023. But then the writer’s strike happened, and that delayed things further until the strike was resolved. Four and a half years after its initial debut, Hazbin Hotel made its way to Amazon PrimeWhile Netflix might be the largest streaming seervice right now, other major contenders have come into the game. One of the biggest, and best funded, is Amazon Prime, the streaming-service add-on packing with free delivery and all kinds of other perks Amazon gives its members. And, with the backing of its corporate parent, this streaming service very well could become the market leader., where it was met with decent critical review. However, the fanbase, already rabid for the show (having been waiting so long for it since the debut of the pilot) arrived en masse, and it made the show “the largest global debut for a new animated series”. That seems to indicate Amazon is happy with the series, and the audience arriving for it. While an announcement of a second season has not yet been made (the last two episodes have only been out for a couple of weeks as of this writing), it does seem to say that the show is thriving and ready to go for future stories.

But with that long production process, the question that stands out is how well does the pilot stand on its own. One curious thing about this long and shifting production setup is that the pilot, despite being in continuity with the rest of the series that follows, isn’t included on Amazon Prime. If you’re a new viewer who sees the banner for Hazbin Hotel on the streaming service and are curious about the show, you will get dropped in on a story already in progress. It’s not hard to follow along with what’s happening, and the official first episode of the first season is written in such a way to give you all the story you need, and to make you feel like you didn’t miss anything. But the pilot does provide more context, and story beats, that are missing from the start of the main series. For the complete experience you will want to see both. It’s just odd that it’s not in with the main show, forcing you to have to go to YouTube to watch it because, yes, it is a necessary part of the story.

In “That’s Entertainment” we’re introduced to Princess Charlotte “Charlie” Morningstar (Jill Harris voice, Elsie Lovelock singing voice in the pilot), the daughter of Lucifer and Lillith. She’s a bit of a dreamer, wanting to make her own mark on Hell, but not the torture, chaos, and sin. No. She wants to help the sinful and the demonic stuck in Hell find a path to redemption. Hell has an overpopulation problem, you see, and there are only two ways to deal with that: kill the damned or send them to Heaven. At least, that’s how Charlie sees it on day 1 after the most recent cleansing from Heaven has just rolled through. With 365 days on the clock until the next annual cleansing, Charlie wants to find a way to save as many as she can so that Heaven doesn’t kill those it’s cast aside.

Thus, Charlie, with the help of her best friend Vaggie (Monica Franco in the pilot), sets up the Happy Hotel, and then goes on TV to advertise it. When her pitch doesn’t go over well, she breaks out into song in the middle of the interview to try and spice it up… and that only leads to things going even worse. Her hotel already seems like a bust, with only one guest – pornstar Angel Dust (Michael Kovach in the pilot) – and even he isn’t really on the path to redemption. They need help, and fast, and that help comes in the form of Alastor (Edward Bosco voice, Gabriel C. Brown singing voice in the pilot), the Radio Demon, a powerful being who just wants to see where this all goes. His help could be useful if Charlie and her crew can trust him…

Considering its themes of Heaven and Hell, and the war between the two sides, as well as the characters that are part of the main cast, it should come as no surprise that Hazbin Hotel is a dark, adult comedy series. Characters cuss, get violent, get raunchy and generally act like demons of Hell. We don’t even see anyone from Heaven in the pilot (that won’t come until the first episode of the main series) leaving the job of carrying the series to our Hellbound group of friends and allies. This is an animated show meant for adults and it has no problem riding that line.

Plus, there’s singing. Charlie is a character that feels like she was pulled out of a Disney film and thrown into Hell. She is a Princess, the daughter of Lucifer, and she gets to sing and dance her way through three musical numbers in this thirty-minute pilot. She knows that the way to solve problems is to sing about kindness, and rainbows, and doing what’s right. If only the rest of Hell could get on board with her plans. I like Charlie as a main character, and I had to admit that the songs in this first episode suited her, and her plans, well. Her two numbers, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and “Inside of Every Demon is a Rainbow” feel like they were ripped from a rejected pile of Disney songs, in fact, selling the point even better.

Outside of Charlie the show does have work to do for the rest of the cast (which would come in time, of course). Angel Dust is a comedic character but he doesn’t really have much in the way of traits yet outside of lewd comments and doing drugs. He’s funny, but not deep. Vaggie, Charlie’s best friend, is obviously dedicated to helping her pal, but we don’t really know why, yet. Why is she with Charlie? What’s her motivation to be there? What makes her want to work on a plan to redeem the demons? We need more context for these two just so we can care about them more as characters.

Alastor is his own thing. He feels like the villain of the piece, there to eventually try to take over Hell via controlling Charlie. At least, that’s the impression from the pilot. He shows up late, and is obviously set up as someone that can’t be trusted. Hell, Charlie goes out of her way to specifically not make a deal with the demon. Clearly that’s all so that later, when something goes wrong, Charlie can ask for Alastor’s help and a deal can be struck… but that’s based on my seeing nothing more than this episode and the first of the new series. This episode’s introduction of him works if he is going to be a main villain. If not, then I certainly need more eventually to understand why he’s included here.

That says nothing of the B-plot from this episode that seemingly doesn’t even exist in the main series (based on just one episode I’ve seen so far of that run). Early on we see there’s a gang war going on among various factions in Hell. The annual cleansing has left a power vacuum and leaders, like Cherry Bomb and Sir Pentous, are battling to take over regions of Pentagram City, the central capital of Hell. At least in this pilot the B-plot only intersects with Charlie’s A-Plot at the end, and then as a joke before it’s all resolved. It feels tacked on, and not needed at all, so either it needs to stay gone or a whole lot of time has to get dedicated to this storyline to justify it. I think staying gone would be better.

The pilot is uneven, but I at least like what it was trying to start. It’s a warped and depraved Disney story told from the perspective of characters that, in any other tale, would be the villains. But because Charlie is trying to do good, she’s the heroine we need right now and her bright and happy songs help to give the episode the juice it needs. It’s clear the show needed some ironing out, and it did go through a long production process before coming out as a full series, but the bones for the series are here, and they work. Pilots are almost always uneven, and this doesn’t break that mold at all, but it does give us the start of a series with a lot of promise, and, long run, that’s what a pilot is meant to do. It shows the show that could be, with the right direction, and then the series to follow has to pick that up and run with it. And from all reports, that’s what the first season of the shows was able to do…