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Harley Quinn Season 1 review: A zany adventure with loads of laughs

Harley Quinn has just wrapped up its first season on DC Universe. Does it do the demented jester proud, or is it one big joke on the fans?

When DC announced that their next streaming show would be an ultraviolent comedy about Harley Quinn (voiced by Kaley Cuoco, no less) I could not have groaned harder. Not only had Cuoco proven herself to be exceedingly limited as an actress, but the concept as a whole just seemed like a desperate attempt by Warner Bros. to create their own version of Deadpool out of someone who’s essentially a domestic abuse victim.

With this in mind, imagine my surprise when I tell you that Harley Quinn, though not perfect, is pretty darn funny.

As is obvious by the title, the series revolves around Harley Quinn, hopelessly in love with the Joker, even though he sees her as nothing more than a disposable tool. After their latest crime goes awry, her selfish sweetheart flees and leaves her to be sent to Arkham Asylum.

Despite this setback, Harley is convinced that her “pud’n” will rescue her. It’s only through the intervention of her friend and fellow Batman baddie Poison Ivy that Harley realizes her codependency and how it’s destroyed her life. Soon, the clownish criminal resolves to be her own crook. With the help of Ivy and a crew of other disgruntled rogues, she vows to make a name for herself as one of the greatest supervillains in the entire Legion of Doom.

What immediately struck me about this show, aside from the deliberately over-the-top violence and foul language, was how well the writers developed Harley’s separation from the Joker in such a short amount of time. Within the first episode, you understand why she’s so attached to the Joker and how she gradually comes to step out of his shadow. As the season progresses, you sympathize with her plight as her world is altered and she’s forced to take responsibility for herself. Ultimately, it’s the necessity to rethink her life and claw her way up from rock bottom that lends credibility to Quinn’s transformation.

Fans will probably be hesitant to jump onboard with this prospect since a fundamental part of Harley’s character is that she always goes back to her manipulative boyfriend. However, it’s surprisingly easy to buy it in the context of this narrative and the lighthearted atmosphere that’s deftly juggled with the inherent pathos. The fact that the writers were able to maintain that balance while changing a core characteristic of the tragic protagonist is exceedingly impressive.

That’s not to say that Harley herself is unrecognizable. Yes, she’s definitely distinct from the handful of other versions, which is a natural strategy in order to keep things fresh, but this never comes at the cost of the character’s integrity. She still has that adorably psychotic appeal that endeared audiences to her in the first place. With this in mind, you might be wondering what makes this rendition different.

To put it simply, Harley’s personality here is akin to a ditzy cheerleader in a cynical teen comedy like 10 Things I Hate About You or The DUFF. Just add the occasional homicidal reflex, and Cuoco capably pulls this off. She brings such manic energy and sporadic shifts in pitch that you never get bored listening to her, as you never know how she’s going to say the next line.

Not only does this fit perfectly with the hectic atmosphere of the series, but it also serves as a hilarious foil for Lake Bell’s wonderfully deadpan delivery as Poison Ivy. As always, these two villainesses complement each other beautifully, and the scenes they share are some of the most enjoyable in the whole show because of it. However, that statement might discount many of the less prominent players who show up.

This just wouldn’t be fair since there are very few weak links in regards to comedy. Taking villains both popular and obscure, the writers clearly had a lot of fun mining DC’s panels for supporting and even one-off characters. It helps that they’re given voice by a host of other charming performances from the likes of J.B. Smoove, Tony Hale, Ron Funches, Wayne Knight, Wanda Sykes, Will Sasso, and Diedrich Bader.

Considering many of those individuals are primarily comedic actors, it goes without saying that hardcore fans should not expect slavish authenticity in this show. If you’re looking for version of the DC universe that’s meticulously faithful to the source material, then you’d best look elsewhere. Granted, the main players are developed enough to keep you engaged, which is the most important element in the grand scheme of things. With the minor characters, though, the show forgoes an accurate and/or in-depth portrayal in favor of poking fun a la sketch comedy. Such a surface-level approach would be more of a problem if the humor didn’t work. Thankfully, it does.

The series takes familiar aspects of supervillain schemes, such as forming a gang or selecting a nemesis, and treats them with all the significance of a sitcom plot. Seeing the characters grow steadily more irritated at how elaborate and ridiculous it all is remains a consistent source of laughs. Frankly, it’s like giving your foul-mouthed, oblivious friend a convoluted comic book and asking him/her to recount it. That brand of humor would likely grow stale after a while, but this is one area where the series is aided by its format.

Harley Quinn, ep. 4 “Finding Mr. Right” — Photo Credit: 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

At roughly 22 minutes each, the episodes are primarily a collection of standalone adventures loosely tied together by an overarching plotline. This is fitting. Neither Harley’s character nor the wacky nature of the show lend themselves well to long-form storytelling. The creative tools here are much better suited to smaller stories. Otherwise, the narrative would become predictable and lose much of its charming randomness. As it stands, you’re constantly on your toes as a viewer, eagerly wondering what new hijinks each episode will bring.

Now, does every joke land? No. Every time Bane walked in with a bad impression of his Dark Knight Rises counterpart, I could not wait for him to leave. More often than not, however, the gags come at such a breakneck pace that you don’t have time to register a dud before you’re laughing at the next one. The sheer speed of these exchanges would make Gilmore Girls blush.

The only time when the humor truly falls flat is whenever it tries to tackle the supposed sexism within the supervillain industry. During these points, the writing comes off as overtly preachy, recycling topical buzz words without doing anything clever or offering any novelty in its perspective. It’s also one of the reasons that this version of the Joker really doesn’t work.

Not only does Alan Tudyk sound about as miscast here as he did as Superman in Justice League: War, but his character is just wastefully shallow. He’s not even a real character; he’s simply misogynistic plot device that exists solely for Harley to overcome. Saddling him with groan-worthy clichés like “Women aren’t funny!” is basically a cheap way of getting audiences to hate him. Moreover, it’s a gross misuse of the Clown Prince of Crime.

Speaking of misuse, you’d think that the animation would be a bit livelier than this. Although it’s reliably fluid during the action scenes, the show can look a bit stiff during conversations. Whenever the characters are just talking or conveying emotion through facial nuances, they seem cycle through a few static body positions, making their movements feel limited as a result. Luckily, this issue is somewhat lessened by how accomplished the rest of the presentation is. The aggressive cinematography, upbeat music, bright colors, and rapid-fire editing give the show a zany tone which is not only appropriate for the subject matter, but also does a decent job of drawing your attention away from the hit-or-miss animation.

Harley Quinn, ep. 4 “Finding Mr. Right” — Photo Credit: 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Despite these strengths, though, the sad fact remains that they are mainly a means of compensating. If this was a network TV show where they had to constantly churn out new episodes, then you could possibly forgive lower quality animation. However, this is part of a paid streaming service with only a handful of episodes for the entire season. We should expect more.

Thankfully, such issues likely aren’t what you’ll remember about this series. Harley Quinn knows what type of show it wants to be and executes that vision with skill, style, and enthusiasm. Its protagonist is expanded in amusing and occasionally intriguing ways; the character dynamics are rife with charming chemistry; the atmosphere of utter abandon is infectious; the stories make admirable use of the universe; and the comedy comes with many a chuckle. In the end, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable watch for both DC devotees and laymen looking for a laugh.

Next: How did composer Jefferson Friedman come up with the music for Harley Quinn?

Have you kept up with this crazy show? What is your favorite version of Harley?

Harley Quinn is available to watch on the DC Universe streaming service.