In the grand scheme of superheroes and dastardly villains who taunt them, Harley Quinn remains a uniquely frustrating figure. Her depiction in comic books and beyond has vacillated between hyper-sexual and babydoll, and with an origin story inextricably linked to her abusive relationship with the Joker, she’s often relegated to sassy sidekick status without any motivation to call her own. That also means, however, that taking on Harley Quinn means taking on an opportunity to do better by her and find something more interesting to say than, “wow, she sure loves that awful Joker, huh?”
DC Universe’s brash new “Harley Quinn” cartoon is one of a couple contemporary attempts to tackle that challenge (the other being the upcoming live-action movie “Birds of Prey” with Margot Robbie). Contrary to other depictions of Harley, this R-rated animated series from creators Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey puts her front and center in all her snarling, whining, gleefully diabolic glory. The animation feels like that of a typical Saturday morning cartoon, but its acidic scripts and shocking bursts of gore reminds you that “Harley Quinn” is taking full advantage of airing on a streaming service without censors. The stories of Batman and his assorted enemies have been told over and over again with no end in sight, but the Gotham of “Harley Quinn” feels like it belongs in the “Archer” universe rather than the films’ resolutely grim one.
Sharp voice performances across the board from actors clearly relishing the chance to play in this world also prove too fun to resist. Executive producer Kaley Cuoco leans hard into Harley’s thick Brooklyn accent whether she’s pining after Joker or bashing someone’s head in with a baseball bat, while Alan Tudyk takes on the challenge of making his Joker memorable in his own way. The rest of the main and recurring cast is genuinely stacked — everyone from Giancarlo Esposito (Lex Luthor) to Wanda Sykes (“The Queen of Fables”) to Jacob Tremblay (Robin) taps in — but the standout performances belong to voiceover veterans like Lake Bell (Poison Ivy) and James Adomian (Bane), who keep their characters grounded in their comic book roots while layering them with some welcome pathos to balance out the show’s otherwise bonkers reality.
But the biggest point in “Harley Quinn”s favor is that it doesn’t just set Harley loose on Gotham for the hell of it. Instead, the show uses 13 episodes to tell a serialized story about Harley breaking free of the Joker’s psychotic hold on her, making real friends, and learning how to be the best (worst) supervillain she can be. In a welcome twist on the usual, Harley’s friendship with Ivy is an even more crucial relationship to the show than Harley’s toxic push-and-pull with the Joker. Most importantly, Harley gets to be an entire person all her own, as heartbreakingly naive as she is wickedly strange and funny. It’s a shame that “Harley Quinn” may be stranded on DC Universe for the foreseeable future, but for those who get to fall headfirst into this version of her world, the trip will be well worth it.
“Harley Quinn” premieres Nov. 29 on DC Universe.