The old saying goes that crime doesn’t pay, but if you’re a female supervillain it probably pays 25% less than for one of your male counterparts. Mind you, if anyone’s going to be able to break through that glass ceiling, then it’ll likely be Gotham City’s Harley Quinn (particularly given that her weapon of choice is a huge mallet).
Given her rise to prominence in the live action DC Comics adaptations of Suicide Squad and Birds Of Prey, Harley Quinn was practically an obvious choice to get a series of her own. Seeing as how she originally began in Batman: The Animated Series, Harley’s now come full circle, after transferring to comic books, novels and, latterly, movies, before finally returning to her original medium, and this time she’s the star of the show.
Harley Quinn has come a long way from being essentially what was envisioned as a one-shot character, then being the Joker’s ongoing sidekick and girlfriend, to ultimately becoming an independent lead in her own right. For the mainstream audiences, the breakthrough came with the appearance of Harley in the DC Extended Universe films, and Margot Robbie’s performance as the ‘Cupid of Crime’ bringing a lot of plaudits.
With the DC Universe streaming service launching back in 2018 in America, there was a need to have new, original content to put on the platform as an incentive to sign up, alongside all the archive material; it seemed just the right time to give Harley Quinn her own show, with the project co-created by Justin Halpern (best known for his Twitter feed, which then became a book and finally a sitcom with William Shatner, $#*! My Dad Says), Patrick Schumacker and Dean Lorey.
This triad decided to give the animated series a decidedly adult spin, with Harley Quinn most definitely not shying from profanity and ultraviolence, setting it apart from the character’s live action outings. It’s not the first time she’s been in more mature territory, as she was featured in the animated movie Batman And Harley Quinn in 2017, with the role being voiced by Melissa Rauch of The Big Bang Theory; it attracted some criticism for its treatment of the character, and its unusually risqué content.
For DC Universe’s Harley Quinn series, the lead has been taken by Rauch’s former co-star Kaley Cuoco, who’s also doubling up as one of the Executive Producers. Similar to Birds Of Prey, the series sees Harley stepping out, trying to make it on her own, after splitting up with her “Mistah J”; unlike the movie, however, the cartoon Harley is doing it on her terms, as she’s the dumper, not the dumpee (which is what happened to her in the live action flick), so it helps to reinforce her emancipation.
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After spending a year in Arkham Asylum, and bonding with her fellow inmate Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), Harley realises the Joker (Alan Tudyk) isn’t actually coming to rescue her. With the duo freed after breaking out, Harley’s eager to prove to the world she can be a supervillain in her own right, rather than just a sidekick or ‘plus one’. Part of this plan involves showing she’s worthy to join the Legion of Doom, home of the ‘Big Bads’, like Lex Luthor (Giancarlo Esposito), Penguin (Wayne Knight), and Bane (James Adomian).
In order to pull off some major league heists, larceny and general wrongdoing, Harley assembles a crew of her own: King Shark (Ron Funches), a tech-savvy part-man, part-apex predator fish; Clayface (Alan Tudyk again), a creature made of a clay-like substance who can take on any form, along with being a frustrated thespian; Doctor Psycho (Tony Hale), blacklisted by other villains after he’d called Wonder Woman a ‘C-bomb’ on national TV; and Sy Borgman (Jason Alexander), a robotically-enhanced ex-US agent, and now Ivy and Harley’s landlord.
For a series based in Gotham, naturally there are appearances by Batman (Diedrich Bader) and his various crimefighting cohorts; however, these are chiefly cameos, as the show’s not about them, it’s focused on Harley, her crew, and the various miscreants of DC. The closest that we’ve come to having a programme which showcases the Rogues Gallery rather than the Caped Crusader was Gotham, but as that was about their formative years, and didn’t have Harley in the mix, this steps things up a notch.
A significant part of the show is about Harley’s growth as a person, which starts with the symbolic act of discarding her original Harlequin-styled outfit, shedding her ties with the Joker, and donning what’s now her far more familiar garb, as seen in the live action movies. We also get to explore her psyche and her family background, seeing all of the factors which had contributed to her eventual transformation from psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel, Ph.D.
An issue that’s been highlighted and debated over the years is the nature of Joker and Harley’s relationship, with it being characterised variously as toxic, unhealthy, ugly, and other such similar descriptions. Here, Harley Quinn addresses the issue head-on, calling it codependent and abusive, which is a pretty fair summation. Throughout the run, Harley does her best to avoid being drawn back to Joker like a moth to the flame whenever he appears.
Not many characters actually come out of the first season of Harley Quinn looking particularly favourable: Batman, for example, considers Commissioner Gordon (Christopher Meloni) a co-worker, rather than a friend, and doesn’t wish to get involved in hearing about his personal life; Gordon, meanwhile, is pretty much a broken man, stuck as he is in a marriage with zero reciprocation of his love, and seemingly nobody to confide in about his troubles.
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A lot of what happens here is upending what we know – or think we know – about people we feel that we’ve come to understand via various iterations of the Batman story, and letting us see them all differently. The person who comes over in the best light is Poison Ivy, who’s traditionally been characterised as just a homicidal maniac with a lethal plant fixation; here, however, she’s stripped of any OTT-ness akin to Uma Thurman’s rather toe-curling turn in Batman And Robin, and is instead just a grounded, everyday woman who happens to love flora more than fauna.
Harley Quinn is a show which isn’t afraid to be brash, bold and disrespectful, gaily sending up its source material in a way which is at times quite a refreshing take. It does tend to revel in not being a network TV show by glorying in all of the bloody, bone-shattering violence and swearing, perhaps a little too much at times; hopefully, it’s grown out of that for Season 2, in case it mistakes being puerile for an actual mature adult tone going forward.
With each episode running to a shade over 20 minutes, it’s easy to binge on, and is more than worthy of giving a go if you need something to bring a smile to your face. After all, as a certain Clown Prince of Crime once asked: “Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?”.
Harley Quinn Season 1 is currently available to watch on All 4.