Considering the show doesn’t come out until next Friday, this will be a spoiler-free review of all thirteen episodes of season 1 of DC Universe’s Harley Quinn. Yeah, I know that the show-runners said they were fine with early reviews being spoiler-heavy…but what’s the fun in that?!
It’s pretty easy to say that Harley Quinn has, as a character, been through some major changes over the past few decades. Between breaking it off with the Joker, meeting the fact that she was abused by him head-on, coming out as canonically bisexual, being given a makeover for Suicide Squad, and soon getting a whole movie about her emancipation from the toxic relationship from the Joker in Birds of Prey; a Harley awakening has happened.
We’re completely here for it. And so are the showrunners of DC Universe’s upcoming animated series, Harley Quinn.
The show kicks off where you’d expect it to: with Harley (Kaley Cuoco)—in her classic harlequin costume — at the side of the Joker (Alan Tudyk), as he’s trying to steal a literal boatload of money. It’s hammered in (wocka wocka) pretty early that Harley is seen as “just the Joker’s girlfriend” and incapable of independent thought or action aside from what the Joker wants. That all tracks to what we’ve been made to believe about Harley in the past, but when the Joker bails on her and she gets shipped off to Arkham Asylum for a year, Harley figures out — with the help of Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) — that the Joker doesn’t love her at all, but is using her.
Finally breaking out of Arkham, Harley approaches the Joker and he pulls his usual manipulative, gaslighting stunts in hopes of making her stick around. As many toxic and emotionally abusive relationships often go, it takes a few more times of almost dying, being called stupid, and generally being treated like a piece of meat, before Harley really sees the Joker for what he is. And that’s really where the show begins, making it clear: This is not Joker’s Harley Quinn anymore.
The one thing that the series really succeeds with, is depicting that something painful and manipulative can seem like love, but that it often takes a whole crew of supporters to make you see that. With a menagerie of characters from the DC comics universe at her side such as Dr. Psycho (Tony Hale), Clayface (Tudyk again), Sy Borgman (Jason Alexander), King Shark (Ron Funches), Kite Man (Matt Oberg), and of course, Poison Ivy, Harley manages to muscle up the strength to not only see that she’s something other than Joker’s girlfriend, but realize that she’s fit to be the Queen of Mean in Gotham all by herself.
It seems that the show’s creators have gone out of their way to feature relatively obscure DC characters such as the Queen of Fables (voiced by none other than Wanda Sykes) and Maxie Zeus alongside the regular gang of Riddler, Bane, the entirety of the Legion of Doom, and other more familiar faces. As a long time DC fan, it’s great to see that the writers had a lot of fun with not just choosing what characters to use, but finding the most fun casting choices for each one.
But back to Harley! Along the way to finding herself as an individual, she’s met with plenty of people who continue to refer to her as Joker’s girlfriend — and if they’re not talking about her as that, she’s being told that she’s “just a woman”. While these aspects of the show are valuable and can mirror the experience that many folks have, there are more than enough moments that make things feel repetitive and heavy-handed. Thankfully, every time someone says something along those lines, Harley is ready to curse and shout and maneuver her way into showing them otherwise, so even when the message feels a bit too obvious, there is plenty of “doing” to back up why it’s wrong…but in a fun way.
Speaking of fun, many early critics were quick to judge the amount of cursing in the show based on the trailer, and I am here to tell you that — even coming from someone who swears like a sailor — the trailer and first episode might have you wincing from the get-go, but that’s not the case for every episode. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of “fuck”s and “ass”s and “shit”s to go around, but the feel changes as the story goes on; using the cursing as a device for relatable humor and organic conversation rather than a forced punctuation mark at every opportunity.
More than anything, the best message you can expect from this show is the important of being able to rely on your people. Though Poison Ivy and Harley might not get the big bisexual ship you were hoping for here (unfortunately), the bond they share is something maybe much more intimate and special, as their fights, make-ups, and continual plans show off the necessity of having someone who loves you as yourself while you grow all on your own. No, really; it’s probably the sweetest thing that you need right now.
As much as I can talk about the characters, casting choices, and f-bombs, though, the true shining star of the series is the animation. Because the characters are a bit different from what we’re used to seeing from them; the choice to make them a bit funnier, more brightly colored, and more cartoonish, is one that really makes the show what it is.
In short, though you may have your own opinions after watching the initial trailer, this particular version of Harley Quinn is, I think, something that has been overdue for some time now; and something that will definitely resonate with a large portion of its intended audience.
Trust me, it’s not without its flaws and can really lay into some tropes, but with that same heavy hand, it bounces back and delivers a message to anyone who needs it: you’re an absolute badass all on your own.
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