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DC Universe’s Harley Quinn is a hilariously gnarly win

Image: Warner Bros. Animation
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“Puddin’” has always been quite the loaded endearment. A deceptively cutesy nickname that rings like blaring alarms for many familiar with the history, “Puddin’” has stood as a symbol of Harley Quinn’s inexplicable devotion to Joker, her clown-faced paramour and Gotham City’s deadliest villain-at-large. The profoundly toxic relationship between the former Arkham Asylum psychologist and her once-patient created an avenue for Bonnie and Clyde-esque antics and, more importantly, the formation of a burgeoning outlaw fueled largely by passion. It’s a formula that has rendered some very fun results, but deep down, Harley’s origins sold her fairly short. By tying her thoroughly chaotic nature and underlying motives to this one man, this proper villain is, both intentionally and unintentionally, reduced to an ineffective sidekick. And Dr. Harleen Quinzel is quite maniacal in her own right, thank you very much.

So it’s rewarding to see an animated riot like DC Universe’s Harley Quinn build itself so soundly on Harley’s potential instead of just her penchant for mayhem. By the end of the first episode, it becomes clear that the choice to score the series’ initial trailer with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts’ cover of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s theme, “Love Is All Around,” was more than a case of juxtapositional comedy. When you get past the bloody bashing and the heists, Harley Quinn follows a woman who, much like Mary Richards, is determined to thrive on her own merits and engage the world as her own person. By slightly modifying her drive—namely, making the Legion Of Doom the center of her universe instead of her trash-ass boyfriend—the show gives fans a front row seat to all of Harley’s obsessive, high-risk tendencies in a story that is unequivocally about her, not who she’s dating. Add pitch-perfect comedic timing, a solid cast of comedy’s hardest hitters, and inimitable chemistry presented in the form of one of the most satisfying female friendships in a long while, and you have one of the best shows of the year, easily.

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The series opens with a heist by Harley (Kaley Cuoco) and Joker (Alan Tudyk) gone wrong—not because they’re ill-equipped, but because of Joker’s inability to take a back seat to anyone, let alone his ambitious girlfriend. Between the heckling of the overconfident marks (“You think we’re afraid of the Joker’s girlfriend?”) and Mistuh J’s expressly dismissive approach to their relationship (“You are the appetizer. I’m the entree.”) we’re given an early reminder of Harley’s lowly rank within Gotham’s most wanted. Needless to say, things fall apart pretty swiftly. Batman (voiced by, bless everything, a gravel-toned Diedrich Bader) arrives too late to catch the clowning menace, but just in time to snag his loyal-to-a-fault sweetheart, who the Joker eagerly tosses aside as a mere prop for diversion. Even as she heads straight to Arkham Asylum, Harley remains hopeful that her Puddin’ will have the perfect trick up his sleeve to bust her out. Ultimately, she clings to that hope behind bars, for nearly a year.

But her residency at Arkham Asylum comes with a silver lining: It’s where she meets Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), who will soon become her best friend, grounding force (well, as much as one can possibly ground Harley Quinn, really), and biggest source of support. It also marks the beginning of what will result in 13 episodes of truly commendable back-and-forth between Cuoco and Bell, two women who have found a seamless rhythm amid impeccable chemistry and killer writing. Harley and Ivy’s amorous friendship not only guides the series, but establishes a level of naked loyalty typically reserved for romantic relationships. Broad City soared with a similarly close dynamic, and the fact that this is an animated tale about antiheroes does little to water down the intensity.

That said, would it have been fantastic to see Harley Quinn replicate Harley and Ivy’s romantic bond from the comics run penned by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti? Absolutely, and there are very clear hints littered throughout the series that leave the door open for something more intimate in the future. However, considering where Harley is in her life at this particular moment, another partner is the last thing she needs—even if that relationship would likely be the most fulfilling and loving one she’s ever experienced.

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Image: Warner Bros. Animation

But before we can even begin to entertain a new love interest, we first have to fully contend with the psychological abuse Harley endured prior to this defining point, especially at the hands of a character as oddly beguiling as Joker. Though the bulk of the show’s focus remains on her quest to become the criminal queenpin of Gotham City, creators Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey occasionally adjust the pacing to examine Harley’s deeply embedded emotional scars. This is where Harley Quinn really leans into the benefits of adult animation. It’s not entirely about off-color language, bone-breaking, and risqué jokes (though it all adds to the fun); it’s also about having the opportunity to explore matters that are tremendously complex, like the enduring effects of abuse.

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One episode in particular, “Being Harley Quinn,” literally delves into Harley’s psyche and challenges her origin story, providing a different viewpoint that exposes totally different horrors than the ones we’ve committed to canon. But no matter how much the series shifts and reshapes this particular narrative, it is careful not to exonerate Joker, despite his arsenal of quips and cleverness. Harley Quinn never wavers in its mission: She’s the damn boss, her pain is valid, and she is in charge of both her healing and her future. It’s refreshing to take part in an actual journey and not just an empty joy ride, consistent belly laughs aside.

Though the core characters are enough to satiate any fan’s appetite, Harley Quinn is blessed with a cast of brilliantly exaggerated heroes and villains who balance the show’s more serious notes. (Prepare for an adorable nugget in the form of Damian “Robin” Wayne, voiced by Jacob Tremblay.) Both Cuoco and Bell deliver gut-busting chuckles on silver platters while keeping up with the likes of Tony Hale, Ron Funches, Giancarlo Esposito, and Wanda Sykes as the devious Queen Of Fables. All of the familiar draws of DC animated hit are here—the snappy dialogue, the bold (and quasi-gruesome) action—but what makes this series uniquely appealing is that it’s a perfectly viable starting point for old and new fans alike. Because as Harley herself would be quick to tell you, this is her brand new origin story—and this time she’s writing it herself.

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