How Netflix’s new Jewish protagonist is breaking ground for trans teens
Imagine logging onto Netflix and seeing a beautiful Jewish wedding scene, complete with kippot, a floral huppah, and breaking of a glass. Now imagine that this scene is the musical daydream of a gay, Jewish and trans teen named Barney — the main character of a new animated series.
For families who love fun and spooky stories, the last decade has produced a plethora of fantastic additions to the genre. “Gravity Falls,” “The Owl House,” and “Steven Universe,” among others, have enriched the animation landscape not just with brilliant storylines but through trailblazing inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters.
This June, an excellent animated series debuted on Netflix that follows in the entertaining footsteps of these shows while breaking new ground in terms of representation. Currently rated 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, “Dead End: Paranormal Park” is the story of two teens who encounter more than they bargained for when they take summer jobs at a haunted theme park. Norma Khan (Kody Kavitha) is a neurodivergent Pakistani American teen who is obsessed with her favorite actor, Pauline Phoenix. So it’s no surprise that she’s eager to work at Pauline’s proprietary theme park — think a darker and more cynical version of Dolly Parton’s Dollywood. Norma’s classmate and sometime rival, Barney Guttman (Jewish trans actor Zach Barack), soon joins in to uncover the mysteries of Phoenix Park — battling ghosts, demons, and the coming supernatural apocalypse along the way.
As a cantor and the parent of a trans teen (my son discovered the show on TikTok and invited me to watch it with him), I was thrilled with the show’s treatment of Barney’s multifaceted identity. Like many teens, Barney engages with his Jewishness through food and pop culture — he loves brisket and proudly dons a Seth Rogen-inspired Star of David sweater in the “Christmas in July” episode. Most significantly to me, when Barney fantasizes about marrying his crush, Logan, he imagines a specifically Jewish wedding, which shows that Barney sees his Jewish identity remaining essential into adulthood.
The show also offers a nuanced portrayal of Barney’s parents. While tolerant of Barney’s gender identity, they don’t stand up to Barney’s transphobic grandmother. It’s this betrayal that motivates Barney to seek support and acceptance from his found family at Phoenix Park. In one of the show’s most moving scenes, Barney’s parents express frustration that he doesn’t appreciate how far they’ve come in accepting his identity, while Barney feels that their tepid support does not go nearly far enough. At a time when the trans community is increasingly under attack, showing difficult family moments like these is a powerful way of making our trans kids feel seen, heard and cared for.
I spoke via Zoom with British animator and comic book artist Hamish Steele, the creator of “Dead End: Paranormal Park” and “DeadEndia,” the series of graphic novels on which the show is based. We chatted about horror movies, demons and the evolution of Barney’s Jewish identity. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
There are so many horror movie references and Easter eggs in “Dead End: Paranormal Park.” In many ways, the show feels like a love letter to the horror genre. What is it about horror that really speaks to you?
Well, a lot of queer people love horror, for lots of reasons. There’s a great tradition of Halloween being the day, for a lot of queer people, where everyone gets to act how they want to all year round. I mean, what is a monster, other than a kind of subversion of the norm?
We don’t touch on it too much in Season One, but it would be where the show goes and it’s where the books go. We explore what it means to be demonized. So the idea behind what the demons represent is: At the start of the show, the main characters see these kinds of characters who, growing up in the world, they’ve been told to fear. And as they go on, they start to realize that they, as marginalized humans, actually have a lot of empathy to understand where the demons are coming from.
A lot of people want to tell stories of oppression through metaphor and they can be successful, but quite often they fall into this trap of having straight white male characters learning what oppression is and getting to experience it for the first time. Whereas our show comes from the perspective that maybe people like Barney and Norma find that they actually know where these demons are coming from.
Aside from the Pickles family in “Rugrats” or Krusty the Clown in “The Simpsons,” there aren’t many overtly Jewish characters in animated television. What led you to write Barney as explicitly Jewish?
“Dead End: Paranormal Park” is based on a series of books called “DeadEndia,” which were based on a YouTube short I made about 10 years ago, which again is based on the little comics I was doing. The original Barney and Norma were just like blobs. And at different stages of development, I kind of figured out who they were and tried to make them real people.
When we made the YouTube short, I chose between a few actors and the actor that I felt best played Barney was [Jewish actor] Zack Pearlman. I think he’s really funny. And that was the first time Barney went from the kind of little funny blob I drew in comics to a real person. So I actually think a lot of Zack’s mannerisms and personality influenced Barney. And when I just filled out the role in the comics, it just made sense to make him Jewish — in each version of the show, the characters become more like real people and more set in the real world.
When we got to make the [Netflix] show it was the first time I was writing with collaborators. We cast Zach Barack. All of the representation on the show, it never came from box-ticking. The show is set in the real world. It’s disingenuous not to represent the real world by representing all the people.
How do you balance the tension between wanting your characters to be relatable, while still acknowledging that some of the needs and motivations of a trans character, a Jewish character, and an autistic character are unique to their lived experience, and therefore not always universally relatable?
I think that you have something in common with every single person on the planet — while certain elements would hit certain people really close to home, either because it’s them or it’s someone they know. I’m a big pro-labels person, but I think sometimes labels can put people off and they think, “Oh, that’s the trans, autistic show. I’m not that; it’s not made for me.”
But that’s part of the balance. For instance, I like talking about how the show is quite funny and action-filled. You know, your show is not going to be for everyone, but you do try and make it for everyone. You hope that everyone will like it and find a way to relate to it and enjoy it.
“Dead End: Paranormal Park” is streaming now on Netflix.