Harley Quinn has had a strange rise to the top. The now top-selling comic book (and especially top-selling merchandise) character famously didn’t get her start on the page — she was born for the screen in the beloved 90s show Batman: The Animated Series. First imagined as a henchman to joker to stand in contrast to his usual lunks, Harley quickly gained a fan following of her own, and after getting a proper origin story with the episode “Mad Love,” she made her way to the comics, where she’s been growing in popularity and compelling storylines ever since. But as we saw with 2016’s Suicide Squad, poor Harley is still trying to break out from behind the Joker’s overwhelming shadow in the public eye.
Fortunately, her time has come. With Warner Bros.’ live-action Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn on the way next year, DC Universe is taking the character back to her animated roots with their Harley Quinn series, and they’ve given the beloved character the absolutely bananas, foul-mouthed, spunk-to-spare rebirth that she deserves. “So this is where you fuck the bats!” she tells Batman when she makes his way into the Batcave. In general, she’s all about Batman fucking those bats, or really, any opportunity to taunt anyone, in any way, with as many F-words as possible. She’s Harley Quinn and she’s ready to get downright weird with it to claim her rightful spot as a crime boss of Gotham, but she’s not gonna forget to make it funny as hell.
The series finds our favorite psychiatrist-turned-mental patient on the heels of yet another betrayal by the joker, who once again, has left her to die. And she’s about had enough of it, breaking things off for good (or at least she really really hopes it’s for good,) Harley spends the 13 episodes of this first season struggling to define herself outside the confines of her relationship with joker — not to mention in an industry where sexism still reigns supreme. Harley Quinn isn’t a show that lets its message get ahead of its entertainment, but it no doubt has something to say about the role Harley was cast in for too long.
It should come as no surprise considering her origins, but Harley is right at home in the animated medium, a perfect device to translate the character’s over-the-top insanities, obsessions, and behavior. Series creators Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey relish the opportunity to lean into Harley’s giddy, diabolical villainy, punctuated with moments of sometimes shocking gore, without ever having to get too heavy, serious or gritty with it. Likewise, Harley is voiced by Kaley Cuoco, who opts to drop much of the signature oh-so-new-yaaaawk accent in favor of her own take on the character, but still feels right on point with her firecracker energy and bloody punchlines. This Harley is profane and deadly and the animators take great relish in showcasing her wild and offensive indulgence, sending giant bright red streams of blood from her victim’s mangled bodies — just as bright red as the lipstick on her grinning mouth.
Indeed, Harley’s chaotic, irreconcilable spirit is on full display in Harley Quinn, where she’s once again paired with her perfect opposite — the ordered and greater good-driven Poison Ivy (voiced here by Lake Bell in an alluring and occasionally outright hilarious deadpan,) who helps Harley pick up the pieces after she splits from the Joker. They’re as fine a pair as ever, and while Harley Quinn doesn’t yet lean into their fan-favorite romance, the chemistry between the characters is as electric and easy as ever.
Of course, Ivy is Harley’s foundation during her recovery, but that doesn’t mean she wants the same life as her BFF. While Harley spends most of the series trying to build her own squadron of henchmen — the kind of bad guy gang that will put her on the same playing field as her dreaded ex — Ivy takes on the tried and true role of the straight woman and steady BFF. Which is good because “Mistah Jay” (voiced by Alan Tudyk, reliably excellent and a fine fit for the characters theatrics) is still out there trying to retain his throne as the Crown Prince of Crime and he takes an especially sadistic delight in shutting down his former flames dreams.
Harley Quinn will feel like going home for any fan of the character, old and new. Her eternal struggle with her co-dependent obsession with the Joker has long been the fuel for her character, but like many of the best Harley stories, Harley Quinn is even more interested in who she becomes after all that and how she re-designs herself when she’s finally the one calling the shots. Best of all, the series understands that re-design needs to be every bit as bonkers as she is; full of cheeky filthiness and earnest passion, funny and f-cked in the head all at once, and yes, pretty damned violent.
Featuring brilliant little touches like a Captain Gordon who’s utterly destroyed by his demented job and a bounty of killer vocal performers — including the genuinely inspired casting of Ron Funches as King Shark and the flawless James Adomian doing his best Tom Hardy as an utterly ineffective Bane — Harley Quinn is just a treat. It feels like visiting Gotham from her singularly-psycho perspective, with all the colorful action and doofy humor that entails.