When WB hired a couple of sitcom writers with no background in animation and limited experience with comic book adaptations to create an animated Harley Quinn series for DC Universe, I had my reservations. Mostly, “Really, these guys?” And, “Why?”
That was two years ago. Harley Quinn – the pilot episode, at least – is finally here. I’d love to say all of my fears have been put to rest and this is actually one of the biggest surprises of the year. Alas, Harley Quinn is exactly what you’d expect from a couple of sitcom guys who were given DC’s female answer to Deadpool and shoved her into an R-Rated Mary Tyler Moore Show. The result is sporadically watchable in an Adult Swim, shock value kind of way as well as the random, dryly funny line reading from Lake Bell’s version of Poison Ivy, but it’s not the type of thing that’s going to warrant a DC Universe subscription.
The premise: after a year-long stint in Arkham Asylum spent fruitlessly waiting for Mistah Jay (Alan Tudyk) to break her out, Harley (Kaley Cuoco) finally realizes, you know what, this whole “being the Joker’s girlfriend” thing might not be working out. In an admittedly funny bit of lampshading, the show treats this as not so much a breakthrough as Harley finally catching up to what everyone else could already see. Besties Poison Ivy and The Ridder (Jim Rash), for example, spend their time in Arkham trying to convince her the Joker isn’t coming, giving them a real justified “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” when Harley reaches that conclusion and reacts as if no one had warned her.
So, she breaks up with the Clown Prince of Crime, or at least she tries to. “No one breaks up with me; I break up with them!” is his basic response. She has to literally fight her way out of the relationship, but after handily dispatching the Joker’s goons she proudly walks out the door and straight into Poison Ivy’s apartment – roommates now, I guess – to plot her next move. It’s high time she strikes out on her own and starts her own gang, she decides, maybe even a gang good enough to join the Legion of Doom. End of the pilot.
This episode dropped over Thanksgiving weekend. The rest of the season, totaling 26 episodes, will roll out in weekly installments with a long break after episode 13. To watch, you have to subscribe to DC Universe, a streaming service that probably won’t even exist anymore a year from now given parent company WarnerMedia’s moves toward funneling all streaming efforts into HBOMax. Given that uncertainty, the show’s creators genuinely have no idea if there will be a second season. If there is, it could very well move over to HBOMax, which might inherit all of the DCUniverse programming or perhaps include DCUniverse as an add-on option.
Whether or not Harley Quinn actually deserves a second season is a different question. The reviews, somewhat to my surprise, have been positive, with a current 87% vs. 77% critics/audience score on RottenTomatoes.
I get the impression the show plays better with those who may only have a passing familiarity with Harley – kind of remember her from Suicide Squad, maybe know she was in Batman: The Animated Series – than those who would recognize the names Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, the duo behind Harley’s comic book renaissance of the last decade. Or maybe I’m too married to my own preferred version of Harley – the current comic book iteration who quit the Joker years ago, lives on Coney Island, has very meta adventures in her quest to turn from villain to hero – to recognizes this show’s greatness.
So, I’ll pause to acknowledge the good here: the story impulse – Harley leaves the joker, becomes an independent woman – is sound. It’s the exact same direction Margot Robbie is taking her version of Harley in next year’s Birds of Prey team-up movie. The vocal cast is stellar. To highlight a few, Bell gives Ivy a sardonic wit. Tudyk’s Joker is exactly the right kind of crazy. Diedrich Bader’s Batman, a role he’s played in DC animation before, is the perfect buzzkill. The animation is fun, on par with your standard DC original animated movie in quality but with more color and life to the visuals and ingenuity to the designs.
The bad, on the other hand, begins with Kaley Cuoco, who not only voices Harley but also serves as an executive producer on the show. She is, oddly, now the second Big Bang Theory actress to voice Harley since Melissa Rauch did so for the direct-to-video movie Batman and Harley Quinn. When Rauch took her turn, however, she didn’t simply play Harley as Bernadette. Instead, she played her interpretation of Harley. It may not have been everyone’s favorite version – it’s not her fault the film’s stuck-in-the-past script oversexualized the character – but at least Rauch played the part instead of forcing herself over it.
Cuoco isn’t doing that. She’s playing Harley as Penny, or at least a version of Penny who curses a lot and slips into a slight Brooklyn accent whenever she says “Mistah Jay.” Otherwise, Kaley’s just doing her Penny schtick, both in personality and accent. It’s not that she’s phoning it in, necessarily. She packs a lot of energy into her line readings. It’s more that she feels entirely wrong for the part.
Beyond that, the jokes often feel transparently desperate. As the curse words piled up, I kept thinking of Poochy from The Simpsons yelling “to the extreme!” at the screen. Again, here, it’s not that I think cursing is unsophisticated or unfunny or somehow beneath the hallowed halls of DC Universe (Titans’ “fuck Batman” comes to mind); it’s more you can tell funny foul language from lazy, attention-getting. Harley Quinn falls into the latter category.
If they truly wanted to push boundaries, they could explore the sapphic subtext of Harley’s relationship with Poison. They could have her wink at the camera ala the current comic book iteration. They could do any number of things, but they don’t. Instead, Joker at one point tries to dissuade someone from supporting Harley, dismissively sharing “you know she has HPV, right?” Ugh. (To be clear, that line comes from a later episode, but it’s a showcase moment in the show’s launch trailer.)
Altogether, it’s a real mixed bag. There are hints of something that could eventually evolve into anarchic joy, particularly if Kaley Cuoco can find a more distinct version of Harley as they go on and the writers can trust the power of their own premise and not overcompensate with Poochy extremes. As is, though, Harley Quinn is not nearly good enough to warrant DC Universe subscription – more like an occasionally amusing bonus.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.