Nearly three decades after she first debuted on Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn has evolved from a zany sidekick to a bonafide phenomenon. The character has continued to delight fans across comics, movies, and television shows — including DC Universe's upcoming Harley Quinn animated series. The 13-episode first season, which premieres on DC Universe later this month, does right by its titular character (and all of the corners of DC Comics that it touches) with a season of television that's absurd, authentic, and genuinely hilarious.
The series opens on Harley (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) being abandoned at a crime scene by The Joker (Alan Tudyk), which results in her getting thrown into Arkham Asylum. After waiting behind bars for her "Puddin" for over a year, Harley realizes that she can be so much more than Joker's sidekick. With the help of a new costume and a ragtag group of friends, Harley begins to embrace her true self, while simultaneously reinventing herself as a formidable foe in Gotham City.
From the very first line of dialogue, Harley Quinn quickly sets itself apart from the other shows and movies in DC's animated arsenal in an entertaining and bizarre way. The week-to-week stories use animation and sitcom tropes in a way that is unbelievably creative, to the point where it feels like a near-impossible task to explain the plot of any one episode. The pacing of each episode also feels perfect for the week-to-week release schedule, but will probably also make a great binge-watch.
This approach to each episode would be admirable enough, but the series takes things even further with its comedic timing. The jokes — whether they be one-liners or visual gags — often fly by at a mile a minute, but the series also knows exactly when to let a joke build into true absurdity. Many of the jokes simultaneously manage to be so specific and so universal, whether it be references to digital paywalls, the etiquette of asking for takeout orders, or how everyone feels about a very specific Matt Damon movie. There's no denying that the series is ridiculous, but it's obvious that much of that is mined from a genuine love for DC Comics. The series utilizes the various corners of the DC universe without exhausting any of it, which results in some truly inspired cameos and Easter eggs.
It's clear that the series' creative team — led by executive producers Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey, who previously lampooned the DC world in NBC's short-lived sitcom Powerless — are able to truly have fun in the sandbox they're playing in. The series is able to distill each character — whether they be tentpole superheroes or more obscure villains — to a hilarious and entertaining core, much of which is benefitted by the "adult animation" nature of the series. Even on a streaming service where Robin says "F-ck Batman" and Flex Mentallo does...what he does, the way that Harley Quinn uses its R rating feels dynamic and different. There's something incredibly gratifying about hearing Harley swear as she goes on her journey of self-discovery, and there are so many plot threads and jokes that could only work in an R-rated context. The same thing goes for the series' use of violence, which is bloody and outrageous but in a cartoonish way.
Cuoco truly shines as Harley, embodying the comedic zaniness of the character's past animated appearances, but with the modern emotion of Margot Robbie's big-screen portrayal. The season is able to fully convey the bizarre enigma of who Harley is, all of which feels rooted in her unflinching sense of ambition and optimism. It's also worth praising the series' approach to Harley's two prominent relationships in the comics — Joker and Poison Ivy (Lake Bell). It only takes until midway through the first episode for Joker to be called "abusive," and his negative impact on Harley's mental health and sense of identity is frequently made apparent. The series goes above and beyond to showcase how horrible and flawed Joker is, while still making him entertaining to watch. By contrast, Ivy and Harley's dynamic is a wonderful emotional constant, and Bell's Ivy is a perfectly nuanced foil to Cuoco's performance. It's clear that Harley and Ivy have a deep love for each other, and the foundation is there for that to be explored (hopefully in a more romantic way) in the show's future.
Joining Cuoco is a pitch-perfect ensemble of characters and cameos, all of whom are used to their utmost and weirdest potential. Harley's makeshift crew — which includes Clayface (also Alan Tudyk), King Shark (Ron Funches), and Dr. Psycho (Tony Hale) — have a genuinely endearing relationship, and one of the thrills of the series is seeing them thrown into one ridiculous scenario after another. There are so many standouts among the supporting cast as well, from Chris Meloni's increasingly-exasperated Jim Gordon to James Adomian's scene-stealing Bane. And words simply can't express how perfectly cast Jacob Tremblay is as a delightfully-pretentious Damian Wayne.
On a technical side, the series elevates its stellar writing and performances in many ways. The costume designs feel quintessential to each character, but with just enough of a modern and practical edge. There are countless costumes and props that fans will probably want to recreate and cosplay, from Ivy's novelty coffee mugs to a batch of "Suicide Squad" band t-shirts. The art direction and background work is a joy to look at, adding an extra depth to each scene without ever being distracting. The same goes for the series' music, which eloquently captures the upbeat, but earnest energy.
There is so, so much to love about DC Universe's Harley Quinn. The series sends its titular antiheroine on an action-packed, earnest, and hilarious journey, which perfectly complements the "fantabulous emancipation" that Harley is set to undergo in February's Birds of Prey movie. With an incredibly-talented voice cast, gorgeous art design, and an affection for just how weird the world of DC Comics is, Harley Quinn is the feminist animated series we desperately need right now.
Rating: 5 out of 5
The first episode of Harley Quinn debuts Friday, November 29th on DC Universe.