In DC Universe’s Harley Quinn, a gloriously foul-mouthed and blood-spattered adult cartoon, our psychologist-turned-supervillain heroine finds herself in a brutal skirmish with her own parents, who are trying to kill her. (First, they accidentally blew grandma’s head off, then they put a peekaboo hole through grandpa.) Harley beats her emotionally abusive father to a pulp in a filial dynamic I haven’t seen since Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight. “All I wanted was what every Jewish mother wants — for you to marry a doctor!” her mother wails, brandishing a bloody knife. “I AM A DOCTOR!” Harley (Kaley Cuoco) erupts in a zing so nuclear it nearly knocked me as dead as grandma.
Harley Quinn is the story of what happens when a woman’s ego happens to be as inflated as any mediocre man’s. It’s one of the best surprises of the year.
The show stems from Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker and Dean Lorey, who have created another clever postmodern take on superhero lore, à la The Incredibles, The Boys, Watchmen and Powerless. (All three were executive producers on the latter.)
In 13 zippy, violent and irreverent half-hour episodes, we’re introduced to lovesick Harley, a minor sidekick in unbecoming pantomime garb, who soon breaks free from her toxic romance with narcissist Joker (Alan Tudyk) to branch out on her own (complete with a sexy makeover to embody Margot Robbie’s bat-wielding-in-short-shorts version of the character). Harley, a former practicing therapist, bursts with lava-hot anger, and her addiction to her own temper ends up being her Achilles heel in most episodes. She’s a great protagonist because she makes bad decisions and maintains unhealthy goals. Honestly, it’s a refreshing set of vices for a cartoon female lead.
Short of being “How Harley Got Her Groove Back,” the series takes its time to deprogram its heroine from the abuse cycle, following her as she slowly builds her nascent supervillain business/brand. First, her sardonic and husky-voiced best friend Poison Ivy (Lake Bell, playing the character as a grown-up Daria) stages an anti-Joker intervention for Harley that includes hurling her friend in a vat of neon margarita mix disguised as acid (“It’s still kinda stingy,” Harley whines).
Then, once her ex is out of her life, Harley realizes how little respect she has in the supervillain boys club (a.k.a. the Legion of Doom) and seeks to establish a ruthless reputation for herself. She assembles a new crew, including a #MeToo-disgraced Doctor Psycho (Tony Hale), shape-shifting thespian Clayface (Alan Tudyk), easygoing fishman King Shark (Ron Funches) and elderly spy-turned-cyborg Sy Borgman (Jason Alexander). Ivy, an avowed environmentalist with her own plant-based agenda, insists she’s not officially in the crew … but let’s just say she’s not-not officially in the crew. They’re raggedy, but they’ll do.
The best episodes are the ones in which Harley must confront her own boundaries as a supervillain. Early on, she finds herself in a cringey nemesis relationship with seemingly-cherubic tween Robin (Jacob Tremblay, as delightfully profane as in Good Boys), which threatens Harley’s fledgling professional legitimacy. Later, she befriends charming villainess Queen of Fables (Wanda Sykes), only to realize she’s hardcore bloodthirsty and not just your garden-variety heisting baddie. I mean, she full-on murders Humpty Dumpty for an omelet. “Oh, you got a line, huh?” she admonishes Harley. “Superheroes have a line. Teen Titans have a line. We don’t give a fuck.”
The writing is frequently uproarious, chock full of millennial nostalgia and cerebral gallows humor (the former may be low-hanging, rapidly-perishable fruit, but at least the show knows how to embrace its audience). The artists employ a bright, ’90s-retro visual style, simultaneously recalling the rollicking action of Batman: The Animated Series, the blammo inanity of the old Kids’ WB cartoons and the cutting vulgarity of MTV’s adult animation heyday. In one brief but brilliant sequence, a vintage Growing Pains-style sitcom theme plays mid-episode to introduce you to Harley’s family trauma with images alone. (While it’s fun and weird, I don’t recommend the show as a binge-watch — your brain might power surge. Rather, savor it over time.)
Harley Quinn juxtaposes cheeky joke-telling against face-melting body horror. It’s also not afraid to mock the DC brand at large. Here, every classic superhero is a righteous blowhard, every revered supervillain an impotent buffoon (Harley taunts Batman about how he “fucks bats” every chance she gets). We watch as Aquaman cradles a dying pufferfish in his arms and as Bane continuously fails at every little task. Comedian James Adomian’s harpooning voicework superbly obliterates Tom Hardy’s iconic performance as this character.
In fact, the cast at large is key to Harley Quinn‘s success. Harley screeches so much I actually became worried for Cuoco’s vocal cords, but the shrieking nonetheless remains essential to Harley’s personal development. She’s no longer the nasally, sexxii baby-voiced Noo Yawka dripping at Joker’s heels, but a rage machine about to explode into flames. She’s often tempered by Ivy’s voice-of-reason deadpan, a masterful turn from Bell, who in fact wrote and directed an entire feature film about the art of vocal talent. Other main cast standouts include Alan Tudyk, doing his cartoon pastiche Alan Tudyk thing, and Jason Alexander, who infuses Sy Borgman with craggy Yiddishkeit. My favorite guest stars of the season include Susie Essman and Rhea Perlman.
Instead of relying on caper-of-the-week hijinks, the producers opt to highlight Harley’s personal growth, organically building action sequences and serialized storylines from that seismic emotional epicenter. Harley may be a supervillain, but she’s also healing from systemic manipulation, finally able to explore her own identity outside of her ex’s. Like the late, great Tuca and Bertie, Harley Quinn has its finger on the pulse of female trauma and strength. (But with a little Rick and Morty viscerality mixed in.) The show smartly centers her sororal friendship with Ivy — also a doctor, by the way.
While I would have liked to see a version of this show that was created by women, or, at least, a version that provides our heroine an all-female crew, Harley Quinn ends up being more innately feminist than many shows that co-opt the language of feminism for cheap winks. No matter, in a few months I’ll have Birds of Prey for more criminal sisterhood.
Cast: Kaley Cuoco, Lake Bell, Tony Hale, Alan Tudyk, Ron Funches, Jason Alexander, J.B. Smoove, Matt Oberg, Christopher Meloni, Wanda Sykes, James Adomian, Jim Rash, Rahul Kohli, Jacob Tremblay, Giancarlo Esposito
Executive producers: Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, Dean Lorey, Sam Register, Kaley Cuoco
Premieres: Friday (DC Universe)