“The Harley Quinn animated series is excellent and you must watch it,” is a sentence I would have ignored just months ago, before I watched several episodes of said series. Previously, I had no attachment to this Harley Quinn character, and little understanding of her beyond knowing that director Kevin Smith named his daughter after her (no ringing endorsement, that one); and not being able to sit through Margot Robbie’s overdone portrayal of her in the 2016 Suicide Squad movie or its 2020 follow-up Birds of Prey. (From the little of those movies that I have been able to tolerate, it seems like Robbie’s doing what Madonna did in Who’s That Girl but getting none of the backlash for it).
But Harley Quinn, the show, has become the most pleasant pop culture surprise of quarantine for me. And now, perhaps, it can for you. While it was initially exclusive to comic company DC’s streaming platform, it’s now available more widely on HBO Max.
Harley Quinn deftly balances reverence for superhero (or in this case supervillain) conventions, and a diehard belief in the comedic power of absurdity. It takes its world seriously while taking the world at large to be a huge joke. It is at once a deconstruction and satire of the comic-book bildungsroman, as we watch Harley Quinn (energetically voiced by Kaley Cuoco) attempt to strike out on her own after being dumped by the Joker, who has mistreated her for years. She is put through the paces to establish her villainhood: She must form a crew of likeminded bad guys, find a lair (she settles on a dead mall), settle on an archnemesis (she targets Batman but, much to her embarrassment, a 12-year-old Robin comes calling—he’s voiced by Jacob Tremblay and it’s by far the least annoying Tremblay experience I’ve ever sat through). Cheering her on, and reluctantly joining her crew, is her best friend (and former psychiatric patient) Poison Ivy, whose Lake Bell-voiced flat affect gives her a rather enchanting, Daria-like effect.
Harley Quinn looks like so many DC animated properties, but it announces itself as being its own ridiculous thing practically immediately. The opening scene takes place on a yacht where rich white dudes are partying. Harley smashes one guy’s leg, the Joker impersonates another by wearing his face as a mask (there’s no shortage of gore here), and there’s a prominent golden shower joke. As compelling as Harley’s arc as female supervillain learning independence after being mistreated for years is made to be, the joy of Harley Quinn comes in what feels like an infinite reserve of quick jokes and random asides, such as her eventual crew member Dr. Psycho getting canceled for calling Wonder Woman the C-word, or an extended bit when another member of her team, Clayface, loses his hand and it becomes an anthropomorphized cuddly pet companion to Police Commissioner Gordon, who’s a disheveled disaster of a man in this rendering.
I love this show and I can’t believe it. It’s simply brilliant. It’s a nonstop joy. Don’t take my word for it, though. Below I put together a reel of some of my favorite Season 1 jokes (there are currently two seasons streaming).