Harley Quinn is finally getting her due, three years after Margot Robbie’s live-action incarnation strutted onscreen in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Her standalone movie, Birds Of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), will arrive in theaters in a few short months, but there’s a bonus dose of for Harley fans in the meantime with DC Universe’s new series, which is just straight-up called Harley Quinn. Simple enough, right? Well, this series is anything but simple, and honestly, Harley deserves some complexity after David Ayer’s movie romanticized her toxic relationship with Joker, while she wore cheek-baring hotpants. Robbie pushed back upon that attire and has a new wardrobe in her standalone movie (and presumably within James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad relaunch), but more tellingly, the TV series boasts a format that allows our girl to not only move on from the Joker but take the pink-and-blue ball and run with it.
Obviously, Birds of Prey is still in production, so I can’t compare that movie and this new TV series, but I do know that a feature-length film probably cannot devote adequate time to the full process of Harley finally breaking free of her not-only-bad-but-downright-abusive boyfriend. Beyond that, there’s a basic structural difference between the two Harley-centered projects: Birds of Prey shows Harley building up her girl gang of supervillainesses, and Harley Quinn follows her building an almost-all-male crew of henchmen, so she can infiltrate the Legion of Doom and become “Queenpin.” And if she happens to dethrone the Joker from his reign over Gotham? So be it.
This is where I’m gonna pause and address a note to critics from executive producers Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey because their attitude toward possible SPOILERS (they love them) within reviews deserves a mention:
“Please, please, please, make sure you SPOIL WHATEVER THE FUCK YOU WANT. Seriously, we just want people to watch the show so if you need to spoil something in your review, we don’t give a shit, get your spoiler on.”
So, I’m going to do a little bit of that here. Not much! Honestly, it’s really tempting to spoil the hell out of this show (in handy bullets), but no, I’ll only reveal tiny slivers in an effort to persuade comic book fans — who are buried with far too much TV (and movie) content to tuck into right now — that this series is worth the time to watch.
Granted, this series won’t be as widely viewed as that movie, but Harley Quinn is still canon, and it’s really integral to understanding where Warner Bros. is going with its female characters. The show is also kind enough not to swallow an exorbitant amount of time. Over the course of a baker’s dozen of-breezy, 23-minute episodes, the first season features Harley in almost every frame as a fully-developed person. And Kaley Cuoco actually does a damn fine job with the voice work, so don’t worry about any Big Bang Theory vibes ruining the experience. She carries the brashly funny moments, the action-packed ones, and those full of (begrudging) heart. Really, it’s a hell of a thing when a supervillainess comes into her own power, and Cuoco tackles all the ups and downs.
There are a lot of ups and downs. Some of them are ugly and gut-wrenching. Harley Quinn is meant for mature audiences, given that no more than a few seconds ever goes by without profane language, but even more so, the violence is right up there. Since this series can be drawn as bad as it wants to be, there’s obviously going to be scenes that couldn’t possibly be executed in a live-action capacity.
The above image is tame but gives a glimpse of the carnage to come. More importantly, it highlights Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), who’s Harley’s female friend in the series, and she’s invaluable. Everyone needs a friend like Ivy to talk them down from ledges, both metaphorical and real. Her presence illustrates how this show delivers the action and adventure that comic book fans crave while also diving deep into how even supervillains need connection — especially when cutting emotional ties with an abusive boyfriend.
So yeah, about that guy, the Joker (Alan Tudyk). He’s definitely present, and there’s no sympathy for this Joker. He’s reprehensible, and this series isn’t owned by him. Really, that’s the best thing about Harley Quinn: this easily could have been written as Harley and Joker Show, and in fleeting glimpses, that might appear to be the case. However, the entire point of the season is for Harley to get to know herself, and for us to see that identity unfold. To that end, many, many DC characters either cameo in this series or pull extended or episode-long duty, and every single one of them operates in furtherance (or in opposition to) Harley achieving her goal of Gotham underworld domination. Yep, the ex-Dr. Harleen Quinzel runs this joint, and that’s pretty cool.
However, Harley does have a lot of sh*t to deal with when it comes to the Joker. That’s why it’s worth addressing how layered this series is in terms of Harley’s development. Those who are familiar with Harley and Joker’s history know how terrible their relationship truly is, much more so than portrayed in Suicide Squad. In the comics, he’s manipulative and physically abusive, veering between beating the hell out of her, launching her into space, and shooting her and leaving her for dead. The cycle of abuse is no joke, and Harley Quinn doesn’t shy away from her ongoing process of shedding that dead weight. Regaining oneself after such manipulation is, well, tough. Relapses happen, and Harley is not immune to backsliding. Yet while her development is not short-changed, she also has tons of sh*t to do, which is to move on to bold new frontiers.
Ultimately, Harley Quinn might be an economical watch, but it feels expansive, partially because the supporting cast pops with every shade of personality. We get everyone from a very sage Batman (Diedrich Bader) to a serviceable Superman (James Wolk, he’s everywhere these days), but the true spotlight here is on the villains (as it should be). Harley’s gathering of henchmen includes Doctor Psycho (Tony Hale) and King Shark (Ron Funches), both absolutely delightful in their villainy and service toward their leading lady. J.B. Smoove steals some scenes as Frank the Plant, and Wanda Sykes crashes around as the inept Queen of Fables. Then there’s an enormously wild episode featuring the blonde, lame version of Aquaman that comic book fans will recall. He’s not voiced by Jason Momoa, but I don’t want to spoil a damn thing about his episode other than to say that the results of his face-off with Harley celebrate the spirit of Harley Quinn.
That spirit won’t be extinguished by the Joker. He can attempt to halt her rise to power with tricks and slut-shaming jokes, but the joke is on him. Welcome to Harley’s time.
DC Universe’s ‘Harley Quinn’ will stream (on the DC Universe streaming service) on November 29.