Harley Quinn: A Very Problematic Valentine's Day Special — Where Does the Harlivyverse Go from Here?

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<i>Harley Quinn: A Very Problematic Valentine's Day Special</i> &#8212; Where Does the Harlivyverse Go from Here?

Harley Quinn’s V-Day extravaganza, A Very Problematic Valentine’s Day Special, winds up for a cozy fireside chat (albeit without the fire) about the spirit of the holiday. It has peppered its hour-long runtime with enough feel-good fuzzies that it looks at first like we’ll get the ol’ hug ‘n learn Seinfeld hated so much.

But then it winks. “Sorry, wait, why are we doing this? ‘Cause everyone knows all this shit already, so….” At that point, it aborts the PSA and instead gives us a few more moments with the quirky couple of Harley and Ivy (and nearly a recap of Shrek the Third), driving home how strong their chemistry is, how genuine their romance feels, and how winsome Lake Bell and Kaley Cuoco’s voice performances are. I’m sold.

What I’m less sold on is a continuing “Harlivyverse.”

On an episodic level (and here I must be vague for spoilers), the plot hinges on that most evergreen of Valentine themes: the scarcity of affection. The have-nots (Bane and Clayface) try too hard to find it. The haves (Harley) try too hard to keep it. Afraid, they pray to the monkey’s paw (or genie or Old Scratch or whatever metaphorical temptress you prefer) and it all goes awry. Gotham nearly meets a demise so undignified that even Emperor Joker would blush.

It adds up to a good truth. Romance demands ease. Though it may run the course of marriage or a single night, it enters through the smallest door. Hunting for it or straining to cover our vulnerabilities may, in fact, make it invisible.

The comedic delivery of that message, however, could be better. The hits and misses cluster together. A string of jokes will stick the landing (anything with Clayface in it), then slide into limp cameos and bits that go long, not deep. Its lowest point is a gag about animals and tantric sex which last debuted in, of all things, Brickleberry. This works about as well here as it did there, which is to say not at all. Later, during the throes of the special’s… um… climax, Bane disobeys the rule of three and makes a funny concept far weaker than it should have been.

Still, the ratio trends positive, and A Very Problematic Valentine’s Day Special brings enough of the funny to justify a watch. Again, anything with Clayface in it, for example. Finally, they grant him the role he was born to play: Narcissus.

Actually, can we talk about Harley’s Clayface for a minute? Many minutes? Who would have guessed that such a simple schtick could be so good?

In most media, Clayface serves as a prop. He poses as supervillains when they (and the plot) need to be elsewhere. His justifications rarely matter (“Because it’s the role of a lifetime!” he roars after being Joker’s understudy in the game Arkham City). And a shapeshifter is ever so handy for those third-act reversals.

But just because you can look like anyone doesn’t mean you can act like them. This Clayface wandered straight off the set of This Island Earth (1956). He’s a ham of the Classical Hollywood variety, an inept student of the Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff school. The show never runs out of places to take that concept. And that’s good, because it desperately needs a wider itinerary.

Harley Quinn’s first two seasons rode high on Harley’s emancipation. Her former relationship with Joker, which was never innocent, looked crueler in the daylight of a post-MeToo world. So, DC made a new fate for Harley. The first season disentangled her from her captor. The second reconciled her to a life without captivity. The writers drew power from the anger and violent self-discovery of abuse. Like Harley herself, that adventure was bright, hyperactive, and secretly interested in psychoanalysis.
So now, aside from the Villies and a few light tiffs, it feels the shadow of the Joker and Harley’s future with Ivy are complete. Any narrative thrusts to the contrary seem half-hearted.

Whether or not it agrees with that diagnosis, the third season and its special have been trying to select candidates for serious character development. This year, King Shark, Clayface, Joker, and Batman had meaty arcs with family and loved ones. The V-Day special intercuts its action with interviews of various DC couples (e.g. Aquaman and Mera). Using DC superheroes to talk about relationships seems like a big platform.

The problem is that this ensemble either isn’t ready for this or wasn’t sturdy enough to begin with. As I mentioned before, Clayface’s parody matured into a distinct interpretation. Bane, on the other hand, relies on two tricks: he’s a big guy dwarfed by an inferiority complex and a callback to Tom Hardy’s meme-worthy portrayal of Bane in Dark Knight Rises. His shoulders may be broad, but his tiny insecurities are supposed to carry 20 minutes of plot here, and they don’t.

That’s a symptom of going for the easy parody a few too many times. What’s Harley Quinn’s parody of Mad Hatter? A “nice guy” perv, which is basically where Batman: The Animated Series left him in “Mad as a Hatter.” Catwoman? She’s a cat in a human’s clothing: fickle and self-absorbed. Batman’s the straight man. Nightwing’s emo. Even Joker 2.0, who’s a flavor of anarchist Ward Cleaver, lacks texture.

That can be entertaining when wrapped around a central theme, but they aren’t enough on their own, and the song is ending. Does that call for a new starting point? A drop in tempo, like a time skip? The Aquaman and Mera Show? I’m not sure, but the solution won’t be found in coda after coda of Harlivy, contriving a reason to break them up, or toying with thin conceits.

“Shipping,” chemistry… these are difficult to define, and easy to break. Casting companies exist to ferret it out. Most chase it in their own lives. Some theorize about it between persons real or imagined, banging their names and personalities together like so many pots and pans. Yet whatever it is, Harley and Ivy have it. If, however, the show is aiming for a fourth, fifth, or sixth season, they need a little less “happily ever after,” a little more “once upon a time,” and the courage to move on.

A Very Problematic Valentine’s Day Special premieres Thursday, February 9th on HBO Max.

Sean Weeks is a student of classics and mythology who’s wandered slightly off course. If you want to join him in his odyssey, you can visit him at www.weeksauthor.com.

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