Ahead of Birds of Prey’s push for Harley Quinn autonomy on the big screen, the Batman villain is running rampant in her own rebellious, self-actualizing series. The rambunctious DC Universe animated show Harley Quinn is all about Harley (Kaley Cuoco) freeing herself from the Joker’s clutches and becoming her own villain. For anyone who wanted Harley to get her own nasty, bonkers, profane carnival of heists, full of pettiness and imperfect self-discovery, Harley Quinn delivers in spades. Spades full of unadulterated batshit hilarity, that is.
With an R-rated, The Venture Bros.-esque spin on familiar characters, Harley Quinn is truly a comic adaptation for those of us who’ve grown up with comics and had discussions about their more absurd elements. What if superheroes and villains got to be depressed and stupid? What if henchmen chatted about new local dining options? What if Kite Man’s ridiculousness rattled him to his core? Harley Quinn feels like the show that the teams behind every DC animated series have wanted to make in their free time, a show that allows its characters to do and say the kinds of things that don’t make it into four-quadrant movies.
Mostly that’s thanks to those characters. Quinn, crashing with Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) after a last-straw fight with Alan Tudyk’s Joker, assembles a crew of C-listers (Clayface, Dr. Psycho, King Shark) and Z-listers (Sy Borgman). Clayface is an annoying wannabe actor; Psycho is a misogynist pottymouth; King Shark a tech-wiz doofus. All are a lot of fun … though Tony Hale’s delivery as Psycho can get as grating as his lines. Besides that, everyone in the voice cast is a delight—including Damian Wayne AKA Robin (Jacob Tremblay) doing the sweetest little voice—but the interplay between Cuoco’s Quinn and Bell’s Ivy dominates the amusing supporting character sideshow.
Cuoco goes for it hard, endlessly energetic and emotional, while still maintaining perfect comic timing. Bell is so sleek, so calm, so utterly over it that the tried-and-true comedy routine of wacky-meets-serious is elevated to its peak. The relationship between the two is realistically imperfect, aspirational, and always enjoyable. Ivy is adamant she’s not a villain (eco-terrorism is ethical!) while equally adamant that Harley is capable of so much more. Harley is a consummate fuck-up with a heart of gold, dinged and tarnished by years of psychological Joker abuse. Ivy constantly pushes Harley to better things, while Harley hurts those around her and eventually comes back, tail between her legs. It’s an interesting relationship that develops in hiccups and spurts, with their devotion to each other the heartwarming throughline.
Yet, as the show goes on, its ambitions start pushing out punchlines. The plots are silly and engaging enough through the first half—thanks to the strong central vision of Harley Quinn coming into her own and a bevy of references the writers wanted to include—but they lose steam and humor as the show attempts to flesh out its complicated anti-heroine. It’s an admirable goal, which attempts to plumb the complex relationship among villainy, villains, and those they’re fighting, but the upsetting relationship between Joker and Harley Quinn, as well as the latter’s personal background, is the least interesting aspect of the show. Backstory is always hard and origins are always done to death, which makes them feel especially out of place in a show this novel.
Episodes alternatively try to integrate the emotional reckonings with the absurd comedy and scale back the humor in favor of more grounded action pieces. The effect by season’s end is greater for these attempts, but in the moment, there’s a conspicuous shakiness. Not everyone can be Bojack. Hell, not everyone can be Doom Patrol. Still DC Universe’s best show, Doom Patrol devoted everything to its characters’ psychological journeys and even then it had a slow start. It’s hard to walk that tonal tightrope. Harley has such an urgent, vital, hilarious voice early, but even Harleen Quinzel’s gymnastic abilities can’t keep her from wobbling.
Still, the rest of the show is strong. Its animation boasts badass, “you can’t get away with that anywhere else” combinations of inventive style and surprising violence. A car transformation scene, followed by the Hot Wheels-inspired chase, will live in my nightmares forever—in a good way! Those ghoulish money shots (an artery gushing blood out the neck of the broken bottle that severed it) draw out shocked laughs, though sometimes the drawings themselves can be rote. Think Scooby-Doo intermediary scenes—tight shots of a group of folks standing around in interesting locations—with better conversation, which can be disappointing when the show can really be freaky and/or hilarious when the script calls for it.
The writing can also sometimes goes for the easy gag (or non-gag, like a character pointing out how crazy something just was), but most comedies have that kind of filler. If it sounds like I’m holding the show to a high standard, it’s because Harley’s scripts often have such strange interpretations of comic favorites (Commissioner Gordon’s job fighting Gotham’s rampant crime is so lonely that the alcoholic makes friends with Clayface’s sentient hand) that the simple stuff is painted over by its big bright comedy roller.
Harley Quinn is funny, ballsy, and willing to take risks for better characters. Comedies usually don’t hit that point until a few seasons in, while Harley and her douchey Legion of Doom have already started laying intense groundwork over a dozen mostly-great episodes. And remember, it’s fucking funny with two capital F-bombs. DC Universe subscribers will be thrilled by its comedy amusement park while casual fans of Harley or smart animation may find themselves with a new reason to subscribe.
Harley Quinn premieres Friday, November 29th on DC Universe.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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