Review: Harley Quinn (Season 1)

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Harley Quinn's first season is universally appealing and highly entertaining full of laughs, personality, unexpected emotional resonance and depth, and most surely capable of joining the pantheon of other highly-acclaimed animated series’ as it goes forward.

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Since her original debut in the iconic Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn’s characterisation has suffered a degeneration. Harley’s tragic story of abuse and intellect underneath the shallow facade has largely been dropped in favour of emphasising surface-level traits and grossly over-sexualising her in a way that feels egregious. While recent attempts have tried returning Harley’s empathetic roots into the recent layer of child-like sensibility, starting with 2019’s Birds of Prey, the rate of success has been middling thus far.

Enter DC Universe’s Harley Quinn: one of those one-of-a-kind successful adult animated comedies that appear from nowhere every so often. It retains all the elements you come to expect from the format with over-the-top violence, liberal cussing and chaotic energy, but reconstituted through the framework of a character drama that’s rather touching and even inspiring. Beyond the initial disinterest that came with the show’s announcement, Harley Quinn completely subverts such preconceptions with its ribbing and pastiche of DC comic’s characters and lore, with equal injections of humour and heart giving the show a refreshing buoyancy where unintentional demoralizing messaging is thankfully absent. In a time of great uncertainty and difficulty, Harley Quinn is the sort of universally appealing television we need to bring us together right now, and its first season sets up well for what is sure to soon join the pantheon of other highly-acclaimed animated series’ as it goes forward.

Centring on the titular anti-hero, the first season begins with Harley’s (Cuoco) break-up with the Joker (Tudyk). Misadventures shortly ensue as Harley attempts to come into her own as a super-villain and join the Legion of Doom, accompanied by her closest friend Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) and a host of A to Z-list characters from all over the DC universe, primarily Clayface (Tudyk), Dr. Psycho (Tony Hale) and King Shark (Ron Funches) to form the lead crew. Hosting an impressive and perfectly cast ensemble, all of whom who audibly revel in their voice performances – including Alan Tudyk, Wanda Sykes, Giancarlo Esposito and Tony Hale to name a few – Harley Quinn’s unconventional narrative positioning with the daily goings-on of DC’s various villains and their social hierarchy is a bizarre, postmodern fantasy fans once only dreamt of, and most satisfyingly executed here. 

The world of Harley Quinn is developed to feel logical despite the clear lack of realism, achieved in part by the show’s brightly-coloured, ever-flowing animation, and especially with the way it’s able to integrate contemporary culture and technology into the mix without coming across as desperate or catering. Indeed, this actually helps the characters who inhabit this alternate Gotham feel more like real people than they may perhaps ever seemed before as well as mirror our world; naturally paving the way for the complex, charming relationships underpinning the show’s unexpected emotional core and optimistic take on modern-day issues.  

Firstly, Harley Quinn’s is fuelled by its biting, rather gallows-esque situational meta-humour, allowing the show to make fun of itself and the tropes of the comic material it borrows from without becoming cynical. More often than not, the show is exceptionally hilarious, not necessarily by how the jokes are imagined, but in how they are cleverly built and delivered through character dynamic and personality. There’s a working-class perspective evident in the writing, with several moments explicitly stating the writer’s opinions and blunt slices of sharp commentary laced throughout, lending superbly to the brazen embrace of violence. While extreme, the gore is never excessive, being dished out at just the right moments and types of people, making it as gleeful as it can whilst the show carefully marks the fine moral line Harley’s crew keep themselves behind to separate clearly from the true villains. The exuberant back-and-forths and riotous chemistry on display from the very first episode hold up remarkably across the rest of the season, particularly in the delightful primary friendship between Harley and Ivy and it endears us quickly to Harley, firmly engaging us for the interpersonal and internal conflicts she faces.

This is where Harley Quinn begins to shine above most aesthetically similar series. Every pre-established character has their disparate interpretations from the years drawn together into one and reinvigorated with new life, even with obscure characters like Kiteman. Harley’s struggles to gain agency and self-possession are deeply empathetic once more and explored at their most in-depth in quite some time, supplied by Kuoco’s strong performance, and forms perhaps the most quintessential version of the character so far. This isn’t even to mention the depiction of abuse through not just herself and the Joker but others, which is just as potent and heartbreaking today as it was years ago. The rest of the main group come to grapple with their own insecurities and issues as well, edging them towards them the dysfunctional found-family trope i.e: Guardians of the Galaxy to bolster the show’s heartfelt yearn for people to come together and for love to prevail, in turn providing them dimension and memorability.

More than this, however, Harley Quinn is unafraid of fully believing and promoting those all-embracing concepts of love, as cliche as they may seem, and it’s this sincerity that helps juggle the lines of absurd humour and serious, emotional resonance wonderfully. It’s the sort of impassioned, brutal middle finger the show gives to abusers that evokes a wave of long and powerful anger simmering underneath, giving the show much of its staying power. With that said, the first season of Harley Quinn is an irresistible delight bursting with colours and personality. It’s been some time since a show like this just has had such a pure, confident sense of fun with something to say. The only thing one needs to say is: Hell yeah!

Harley Quinn – Season 1 is now showing Thursdays on E4. Watch the trailer below:

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1st year Film Studies student dabbling in all forms of media with a critical and passionate eye. Also an actor and writer with a particular interest in ancient/middle ages history and various forms of literature.

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