What if hell was ruled over by a Latina bisexual princess? And what if it had gotten so overcrowded that this princess had no choice but to open a rehabilitation center for sinners so they could get themselves into heaven? This is what my son wants to know on Saturday morning when he wakes me up out of a deep sleep to ask whether he can watch the pilot episode of a new cartoon called Hazbin Hotel. He has already viewed the first five minutes and come away with the idea I might disapprove of his choice, so he opens with facts he knows would be most persuasive to me, noting the progressive elements of art and culture that inform the show.
Indeed, I will soon discover that the show’s premise is based on a web-published strip by the same name, created by Salvadoran-American artist Vivienne Medrano. Currently, only the pilot episode is available, as Medrano awaits either being picked up by a network or studio — like the show she helped animate for DreamworksTV called Too Loud! — or fueled by a Kickstarter-like collection she has begun on Patreon.
Medrano is better known by the name of her YouTube channel, VivziePop, one of many branches of the social media tree on which she has been hanging her art for nearly a decade. Visible on Facebook, Instagram, a Twitter account with around 120 thousand followers, and a site devoted to her animation on DeviantArt, Medrano’s style combines Disney-esque illustrations with edgy content, creating a productive dissonance between the characters we see and how they act and sound.
I feebly ask my kid for a few more minutes to check out what the show is about and whether it’s appropriate, and maybe another minute and a half to put on some coffee, but he hits me with the old “Please, Mom, please. Let me watch it. Watch it with me! You’re going to love it. I did mention that it talks abouthnjndmnf…(inaudible)…” As he trails off my eyes catch on a specific portion of the show’s description. “This is an ‘adult cartoon,’ buddy. I don’t want to get into another Rick and Morty conversation with you. You’re still young for some topics and for gratuitous swearing.”
No, my kid insists, that’s not what this was about. Sure the characters have names like Angel Dust, but this is hell, Mom, he said. What do you expect? Besides, he won’t even catch some of the references. He’s not trying to get away with watching things that deal with topics like drugs (my eyes narrow) and porn (my brow furrows) to explore any of those topics. What he’s really interested is in the drawings.
Medrano exploded as a social media sensation when VivziePop ran video footage of her working on her drawings in 2012, which she would produce at amazing speed and with a high level of detail. Since then, YouTube audiences have been hooked on her amazing talent at creating totally original animations at the rate of over one and a half million subscribers clicking her content over 180 million times. YouTube is also how my son heard about her.
Medrano’s YouTube platform showcased the first web series that brought her fame, a strip by the name of Zoophobia (2012-2016). It was a particular sequence in this series that put her name on the lips of animation and music fans around the Internet. One of her characters, Jay Jay, delivers a rendition of Ke$ha’s hit Die Young that has attracted around 50 million views and nearly a million likes since its publication in 2014. A huge fan of musicals, Medrano incorporates the genre every chance she gets and Hazbin Hotel is no exception, featuring big numbers by both protagonists and antagonists.
While writing, illustrating, and producing Zoophobia, Medrano managed to find time to attend and graduate from the School of Visual Arts (2014). She completed a degree in traditional animation, and this is visible in her work, which resembles a refreshing and novel take on the American cartoons I grew up watching. During her college years, Medrano produced two short films, Son of 666 (2013) and Timber (2014), winning a Dusty award for the second one. My son is even more impressed to learn that Medrano is still in her twenties.
His face is contorted into a pleading mode that I find especially compelling when the request is like this one. I am not a fan of censoring material and am mostly concerned about exposing my kids to violence, which seemed to be low on the list of concerns (I would later realize there is some violence). I also had to admit that I found the premise intriguing — the rehabilitation of sinners and how the alpha role of the protagonist, Charlie, would read. On the one hand, she is the most powerful ruler of the land, a woman with a female partner (somewhat crudely named Vaggie). But on the other hand, this is hell. Is it desirable or empowering to rule over the underworld? Or does the characterization of Charlie operate as a double negative, implying the biggest sinner in Hades is the bisexual princess?
Still somewhat reluctant, I reach for the AppleTV remote. “Nope,” pipes in my son, sliding onto the bed next to me and reopening the laptop I’d been using to research the show. “On YouTube, remember?” He searches the show, clicks full screen and gets us started. For the duration of the half-hour episode, he gives me nervous side glances and little chuckles each time a chain of particularly filthy language (and, yes, sadly some of it gratuitous) emanates from the mouths of Medrano’s expressive animations.
Medrano’s pilot is replete with the hallmarks of many first episodes: It tries hard to cram in as many of the tropes it hopes to explore in the course of the series and establish a tone — definitely one rife with black humor and satirical intent. It is powerful, but perhaps heavy-handed, ready to be diluted and parsed over the course of numerous episodes rather than the ambitious premise.
In a way, Medrano’s presentation is as over-the-top as her character, Charlie’s, when she pitches a rehabilitative halfway house concept to a roomful of demons. In that sense, it works, and Charlie and Vaggie are redeemable and empathetic characters, idealistic, young, and willing to serve the public good.
Supporting characters like Angel Dust and the villainous Alastor are far more caricaturesque, impossibly rotten and flatter, like a perverse version of a third-generation Descendant, all grown up and gone the route of opioids or crack. More heartbreaking than these character’s development arches is that the stakes at the Hazbin Hotel are high — no redemption — but it remains mysteriously unclear what fate could be worse than hell.
And this is where Medrano’s world still falters a bit, like a newly-minted office worker stumbling a bit in her heels. The difference between the literal and the satirical is still tenuous in Medrano’s version of hell. Some storylines are presented South Park-style, like the cameo by Jeffrey Dahmer, who would, of course, reside in hell and who is treated like celebrities are by the round-faced gang in snowy Utah. Though drug use and sex are not shown, the topics of drug abuse, murder, and sex work are present in a raw, literal way, clashing in tone with the musical portions (satire) and the symbolic portions.
Hilariously, though, Medrano’s latinidad might shine through most clearly in particularly colorful streams of expletives in Spanish that Charlie lets loose, demonstrating her biculturalism, a subtle analog to her flexible sexuality. The topic of sexuality is perhaps the best explored and most elegantly presented in this first episode, with characters running the gamut of sexual orientation and expression. My son and I agreed that this aspect of Medrano’s characterizations was the most balanced and natural, unlike the concept of what is actually “evil” or “demonic,” which still seems exaggerated or off-tone and contrived.
We got through the episode and, just as he expected, my son missed some of the rawer references. But he also caught got some of the pop-cultural Easter eggs, of which there are many in the episode.
A fan of Weird Al Yankovic, like Medrano, he really dug the musical interludes and loves the idea of singing about things too uncomfortable to talk about.
He definitely enjoyed many aspects of the show and though he knows he won’t be seeing more episodes until he’s older, he hopes, as I do, that Medrano gets to make more. In all, I would err on the side of the show’s creators’ recommendation and stick to watching it with adults. Even my son, who walked away impressed as ever with the art (even though unlike Medrano he also enjoys anime-style), was aware that the show is still too mature in content, even for a smart kid like him.