REVIEW – Harley Quinn (season 1)

Crude, obnoxious, and over-the-top. DC Universe’s Harley Quinn proves that you don’t have to be literal dark and grittyTM to be edgy and appeal to adults. The series not only tells Batman-related stories and deconstructs him as well as the Rogues Gallery but it does so by still being colourful, silly, and funny accompanied by a plethora of fowl language and bone breaking. It’s not just a parody or a funny take on these beloved DC characters but a compelling story in it’s own right.

I had heard so many good things and laughed so hard at the various clips floating around the interwebs, however, I dragged my feet on this series mainly because it was a matter of access. But I was finally able to binge the series (thus far) and had an absolutely riotous good time with it. If you didn’t watch the trailer, be warned that this is definitely NOT for younger audiences. The bright colours and art style are what enhance the dark sense of humour and it’s a great balance.

Harley Quinn the series follows the titular Quinn as she finds a way to get over The Joker with the help of Poison Ivy and a crew of other B and C list villains. It’s a premise that’s been attempted and depicted many times over the last couple of decades but here it really seems to understand something very important about the Batman mythos: it’s absurd and ridiculous.

Being animated, especially in this style, does allow for that absurdity more so than a live-action and they really go for it too, leaning into all this makes it seem like a parody of all things Batman (and it does point out and make fun of quite a lot to do with the Dark Knight and its associated characters as well as superheroes in general) but after the first few episodes you begin to notice that there is an internal logic and an actual story arc being played out and you soon become invested in the story like any other series.

All the characters are an absolute riot with many being written or depicted as either too much to type or against type and that only enhances the comedy and satire. Harley Quinn (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) is pretty much to type, maintaining that unfocused psychotic energy we associate with her character. Her “BFF” Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) is normally depicted as a seductress but here she’s kind of awkward but mainly subdued, more of a blend of Daria Morgendorfer and Jane Lane… and that dynamic works so well! The supporting cast also vary from character to character in this manner with Clayface being a very on-the-nose thespian or “luvvie”, King Shark is a gentle and enthusiastic computer whizz, and Bane (clearly poking fun at the Nolan version) is the butt of everyone’s joke.

Most attempts at telling Batman stories without Batman (a criticism that the show makes fun of in season 2 but I stand by it) usually fall flat, however it doesn’t technically apply here because Batman (voiced by Dedrich Bader, reprising his role from Brave and the Bold), even if he’s not the focus, is still present and still part of the context of many of these characters. For instance, Jim Gordon (Chris Meloni) is a depressed alcoholic who, among his many and numerous hang ups and insecurities, is a cop in a world where Batman exists. Hell, they even found a way to keep Damian Wayne obnoxious and arrogant and yet NOT annoying at all but instead somewhat endearing.

The gold medal probably has to go to Alan Tyduk as The Joker. Not since Mark Hamill’s reprisal in the Arkham game series has anyone been able to capture the over-the-top insanity and (most importantly) fun that the Clown Prince of Crime brings to the table as a villain: a psychotic trouble maker with no logical goal or purpose. And here he’s thrust into somewhat mundane situations, which just makes it even more hilarious. I also appreciate how they really do go out of their way to highlight how abusive the Joker/Harley relationship is in a much more relatable manner with absolutely no romanticising of it.

And in spite of all the comedy and parody baked into the show, they really did find a way to make the audience actually care about these characters and what happens to them… even fucking Kite Man! The show does rely on characters more than the plot, which often revolves around how does Harley show Joker she’s moved on and fucks it up, and that’s a really compelling way to maintain an audience.

In terms of commenting on decades old superhero stories being told in the modern age, the show does it well, even addressing the whole “but if those characters exist then how can…?” criticisms (aka The Justice League). But as I said earlier it doesn’t get hung up on pointing out problems or relying on fan service. That’s all gravy over a meal of a fun and an evolving story.

Any problems I have with the show are fairly minor and easily ignored possibly because they are a matter of personal taste rather than anything inherently wrong with the show. For example, I find Gordon’s characterisation to be inconsistent, certain characters are killed off too soon or are under-utilised, and although it’s addressed I’m not sure they properly nailed down Dr Quinzel’s true and original motivations, which have become lost to time, head-canons, and general retconning.

Although it might seem like a major issue, it’s again one of personal taste, I eventually got bored of Harley as a main character. I know it’s odd! She clearly has an interesting arc in the series and the only “problem” I have is the lack of accent (Boston? New Jersey? Arleen Sorkin did move between those cities apparently), which is more about adding unique colour to an already colourful character, but she sort of falls flat after a while. Honestly, I don’t think that’s a problem with the writing, I think maybe it’s just me preferring the many other characters and wanting to see more of them (in some cases we do).

Nitpicks and personal taste aside, I had so much fun with this series. With all the laughs and energy it provides I also find it immensely cathartic as a Batman fan. It’s a great clap back to all the “dark and gritty means mature” depictions of things (I say this as a fan of Star Trek: Discovery, which many complained was “too dark”) and realise that grown ups can still have fun without being morbid… you just have to relish in the juvenile sometimes.

Season 1 of Harley Quinn is available in Australia via Amazon Prime Video. Season 2 is already available in the US (which is even more fun by the way). Season 3 has yet to be announced at the time of writing.

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