One of the overriding issues with DC’s television series have been that they generally take themselves way too seriously. Harley Quinn blows that notion out of the water. It may look like DC’s animated series of past years, but it’s a whole lot funnier, and definitely not for kids. Read on for more…
HARLEY QUINN: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: On a yacht off the shores of Gotham, a man in a captain’s uniform goes, “My fellow whites. Let’s raise a glass to this pyramid of cash, the foundation of which was built by our favorite pastime: Fucking the poor!” Just then, a girl in a harlequin suit jumps on board with a huge mallet and says the money is hers. “Party’s over, you pieces of shit! This is my money now, so back the fuck off!”
The Gist: That girl is Harley Quinn, who used to be noted psychologist Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, but came under the spell of the Joker (Alan Tudyk) and turned into his murderous girlfriend. He reveals himself quickly on the boat, having already killed the captain and taken his face as a mask. He just can’t help himself, much to Harley’s annoyance. She wants to be his partner, not his sidekick. When Batman (Diedrich Bader) shows up, though, Joker jumps into his one-man escape sub and leaves Harley to get caught and sent to Arkham, where he promises to spring her.
Harley knows how to kick ass and take names, for the months and months she’s in Arkham, she waits for Joker to bust her out. Her old friend Pamela Lillian Isley, aka Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), keeps telling her that Joker isn’t coming to bust her out, mainly because he doesn’t really give two shits about her. “You can do way better than Joker. I mean, you’re smart, you’re strong, you’re in control of your own destiny,” she casually tells Harley as Harley fights guards while strapped in a straight jacket. But Harley says that Ivy and the others don’t know “Mistah J” like she does. After Harley’s been in Arkham for a year, Ivy decides to bust Harley out herself, with the help of the Riddler (Jim Rash), who “ate an orange and shit out a seed!”
She has Harley move in with her, where she lives with her man-eating plant Frank (J.B. Smoove), and convinces her to dump the Joker’s ass once and for all. She tries, but Joker sucks her back in with his psychotic charm. But when the Riddler, whom Joker thinks is stealing his “funny villain” schtick, kidnaps Harley and Batman, and makes Joker choose which one doesn’t go into acid, he chooses Batman, because he can’t stand to see someone else kill him. That tears it for Harley, who changes her look and vows to dump the Joker once and for all.
Our Take: As soon as the first f-bomb comes out, we realized that Harley Quinn wasn’t going to be your average DC-based animated series. Then we saw who the showrunners were: Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker and Dean Lorey, who brought us Powerless (Cuoco is also an EP). All the voices, from the main players to guest voices like Tony Hale, Ron Funches, Wanda Sykes, Jason Alexander and more, are comedy powerhouses. So it’s not a stretch to say that this show won’t be taking itself at all seriously.
But what could be a series of lame superhero jokes actually turns into a pretty funny story about a woman finding her true self and the support that female friendship provides. What we see on Harley Quinn is that, despite the fact that Harley and Ivy are villains, they live normal-ish lives and still seek companionship and support. Ivy is the power behind Harley’s confidence, telling her that the Joker is holding her back and she can be so much more. So, despite the f-bombs and the bloody fights and the rest of the chaos, there’s a real story and real characters here.
And, in subsequent episodes, we see that a lot of Gotham’s best villains have inner lives. The Legion of Doom operates like a regular office, with people chit-chatting over coffee in the break room. Joker “loves a good Reese”, as in Witherspoon movie. Bane (James Adomian) has self-esteem problems. The Penguin (Wayne Knight) is proud of his grandson at his bar mitzvah, and his wife, Mrs. Cobblepot (Nicole Sullivan) is the mom most of the Legion never had.
There’s so much richness there that it makes the funny stuff even funnier, which makes sense. Yes, there are jokes about teenage finger-blasting and all sorts of nasty stuff, but the character-driven humor is strong on Harley Quinn.
Sex and Skin: There’s some sloppy kissing between Harley and the Joker when she goes back to him, grossing Ivy out something fierce.
Parting Shot: After destroying Joker’s lair and killing all of his henchmen, she stares at Joker and says, “I’m want you alive so I can see the look on your face when I’m runnin’ this town!”
Sleeper Star: Lake Bell is the unsung person here, playing it mostly straight as Ivy so Cuoco’s Harley can bounce off her. But, of course Bell has her funny moments, especially when she explains why she had to go to extremes to show Harley that the Joker doesn’t care about her. Oh, here’s a good spot to talk about Christopher Meloni, who does a great job as an unhinged version of Commissioner Gordon.
Most Pilot-y Line: Cuoco doesn’t seem to have completely nailed Harley’s voice in the first episode or two. Sometimes it sounds like her regular voice, just more angry and frantic, but at other times it sounds like she’s a flapper from the 1920s, especially when she calls Joker “Mistah J”. Strange, since Cuoco has done plenty of animated voice over work in the past.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Harley Quinn has the right combination of satire, character-driven humor and satisfying story elements to make it one of the funniest shows we’ve seen in 2019.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.