Harley Quinn review

Finally, here’s a good reason to watch DC Universe. The DC streaming service hasn’t exactly set the world on fire with its quality, and it made the most headlines when it canceled Swamp Thing almost immediately, even before the entire first season had streamed in full. On top of all that, rumors abound that the service’s days are numbered, and that its content will be shifted over to the other Warner Bros. streaming service – HBO Max. But for now, DC Universe has landed itself a must-see series: Harley Quinn, a very R-Rated animated series that successfully takes the piss out of the entire Batman mythos, conjuring up a hilarious, irreverent piece of pop entertainment.

The relationship between Harley Quinn, a former psychiatrist-turned-villain, and the Joker has always been toxic – a fact that many can see, while others are woefully blind too, pairing the two up as some kind of iconic love story for the ages. Harley herself fits into that latter category – she’s spent her entire criminal career being the Joker’s punching bag, and as Harley Quinn kicks-off, she’s still failed to see it, even though everyone around her – including the constantly droll Poison Ivy – is well aware.

After Joker sacrifices Harley in order to get away, she lands in Arkham for a full year – a year spent believing that any minute, her Mr. J is going to come spring her. But when that fails to happen, it finally starts to click: the Joker is the worst boyfriend in history, and it’s time for her to strike out on her own. That’s the basic set-up of Harley Quinn, and it allows the animated series to go down some bloody, foul-mouthed, consistently funny paths.

It helps to have a working knowledge of the characters and their world. If – by some odd chance – this is your first introduction into the Batman universe, you might find yourself a bit lost. But those well-versed in Bat-lore are going to have plenty to latch onto. At the same time, Harley Quinn isn’t interested in playing by rules that govern the real world. Supervillains have their own breakroom where they gather and gossip. The animated Bane here has the same voice as the Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, and like that version of the character, his solution to seemingly every problem is to blow it the hell up. There’s an entire episode where the characters attend the Penguin’s son’s bar mitzvah. In another episode, Robin shows up, and, as voiced by Jacob Tremblay, he’s presented as an adorable little kid playing crimefighter rather than an actual superhero. It’s all so wonderfully ridiculous.

Kaley Cuoco voices Harley, and she does her best to make the character her own rather than the now-iconic, thick-accented vocal work of original Harley actress Arleen Sorkin. Cuoco’s comic timing is solid enough, and she manages to make Harley sympathetic despite – and because of – the character’s flaws. The true vocal MVP of the series, though, is Lake Bell, who is an absolute delight as the perpetually acerbic and flustered. She’s like a supervillain version of MTV’s Daria, and part of the fun of the series is having Harley’s constant bubbliness clash with Ivy’s monotone approach to the world.

Alan Tudyk voices the Joker, who is constantly driving Harley up a wall. Tudyk’s approach to the character seems to be to imitate Mark Hamill’s famous Joker voice, and while it works fine, I would’ve liked to hear Tudyk bring his own distinct touch. But hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess. Tudyk does get to flex his vocal chops by voicing other characters, like the forever dramatic Clayface, an actor-turned-villain who can’t resist hamming it up at every turn.

Then there’s Tony Hale, voicing diminutive Wonder Woman villain Doctor Psycho, a raging misogynist who ends up joining Harley’s low-rent supervillain team after the Legion of Doom gives him the boot for saying the c-word on live TV. Hale gets to go as over-the-top as possible, and while his constant shrieking may exhaust some viewers, it worked for me.

After Harley gives Joker the boot, the Clown Prince of Crime complicates matters by telling everyone he dumped her. Boiling with rage – and still not really over Mr. J – Harley sets out to prove she’s just as good a supervillain as Joker, if not better. She struggles to piece together her own gang, all with the hope of someday getting inducted into the Legion of Doom. Lurking in the background is Batman (Diedrich Bader), who has to contend with an eternally frazzled Commissioner Gordon (Christopher Meloni) as the cop begs Batman to be his best friend so he can complain about his failing marriage.

Harley works best in its early episodes, when it’s telling what appear to be self-contained stories. Things flounder a bit in the back half of the season, where the show takes on a more serialized approach, with one episode leading directly into the next. This might make for better binge-watching, but Harley Quinn isn’t being released in a binge-able format – the episodes will drop weekly rather than all at once. Should the show make it to a second season, the writers would be better off telling more standalone stories rather than one huge block broken up into half-hour bits.

Ultimately, Harley Quinn is a series about redemption. The show wants to redeem Harley as more than just “the Joker’s girlfriend”, and Harley herself wants to be redeemed into a powerful, independent figure. But that doesn’t mean the show is in any danger of getting sincere about any of the topics it focuses on. After decades of Batman fans insisting the only way to handle the character and his world correctly was to be as dark and serious as possible, it’s ironic that one of the best recent pieces of Bat-entertainment is as silly and unserious as humanly possible.

Harley Quinn premieres on DC Universe November 29.

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