DC’s Harley Quinn: A Plot-Driven Comedy

I don’t like superhero stuff. It’s a genre that’s inherently hoaky, which is fine, but most of its modern iterations try to use that base assumption to spin perceived depth out of just ‘not being a stereotype.’ Unfortunately, dabbling in basic concepts like ‘actions having consequences’ or ‘characters not being morally uniform’ doesn’t inherently make a story good. That’s more of a baseline that you can pile other, actually compelling ideas onto, which modern superhero stuff rarely does.

I also don’t like for-adults Western Animation. Shows like Rick & Morty, South Park, and Family Guy revel in the nastiness of humanity, upholding cynicism and cruelty and mocking sentiment and vulnerability. I find that kind of hard-edged mantra to be exhausting and pointless, and I steer far away from it.

Enter the Harley Quinn TV show, an MA-rated animated superhero show. I’ll admit, I’m a close-minded old coot and I would never have given this show a shot if it hadn’t been recommended to me by a good friend of mine who I know shares my sentiments on both of the above points. But when the guy who loves Let the Right One In, Umineko and Revolutionary Girl Utena comes to you and tells you that you have to watch the new Harley Quinn TV show, curiosity takes over.

Turns out he was right. This is one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen, and I say that as someone with little knowledge and no interest in the DC superhero universe. The quality comes from a basic place, really: Harley Quinn is a plot-driven comedy with a good story. Centered around Harley herself, a violent criminal known for working as the iconic Joker’s sidekick, the show quickly goes off the rails. Harley breaks up with the Joker, striking out on her own with the help of her supportive friend Poison Ivy, putting together her very own misfit crew including a techie shark, a shapeshifter who wants to be an actor, and a telepath supervillain hit by cancel culture thanks to his misogynistic streak. They meet Kite-Man, a villain whose power is owning a kite, and who I learned recently is somehow actually from the comics. They confront the Legion of Doom, an organization of big-name villains that’s also essentially a country club. They tangle with the Queen of Fables, a mythical sorceress who summons characters from fairy tales complete with horrific twists. And all that is just the beginning. From there on out it’s chaos, baby.

Originally set in a classic version of Gotham city and occasionally starring various famous villains and superheroes from across the DC universe, Harley Quinn manages to completely deviate from any kind of comic canon by the end of its first season, ripping apart any notion that the show would try to fit its antics neatly into the rest of the DC storyline. Iconic characters start dying, and perhaps more dastardly they start developing, their personalities drastically changing as a result of the events of the story. Whoah, whoah, slow down, amirite? This is a comedy show. Aren’t you supposed to establish characters with a set bracket of quirks and traits? And if you do make radical changes to a long-established character, isn’t it supposed to be over the source of a single, self-contained episode and then you reset everything by the end?

Nah, and that’s what I love about this show. There are plenty of talented comedy writers out there nowadays, but something I’ve always been on the lookout for ever since being captivated by the basic conceit of The Devil is a Part-Timer is a comedy show that puts real effort into having an actual story. Shows like New Girl and Brooklyn 99 definitely have overarching plots, but on an episode-to-episode basis you can be fairly sure that the status quo in these shows will remain the same. There’s nothing wrong with that style of comedy, but I personally can get tired of stories that prioritize a strong status quo. The way I see it, comedy is funnier when you’re consistently building something, because you have a likelier chance to become legitimately invested in the characters you’re laughing with and you get a ton more material for jokes. Your comedy show then also isn’t make-or-break on whether or not the audience is laughing; you can lean into moments of sentiment or tension that feel earned.

And wow do those moments feel earned in Harley Quinn.

One of the big selling points for the show is Harley herself. She’s manic. She’s impetuous. She kisses people at random. But she’s also a heartfelt, complicated woman with a multiple-part character arc. Her hyperactive personality makes for a fun show on a moment-to-moment basis, but the entire show is initially constructed around her struggle to get out of a long-term abusive relationship and find her own sense of identity. She’s constantly falling into holes, getting into her own head, and relapsing into bad habits, but she’s also endlessly, earnestly pushing for a better version of herself. The show doesn’t ever make fun of this effort, nor does it make it easy for her by lumping her development together into one transformative epiphany. Harley grows slowly, in pieces scattered throughout dozens of episodes that gradually add up until you realize you’re watching a different person than you were at the show’s beginning. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but it’s sincerely powerful character development, good enough that I’d watch the show just for Harley even if everything else was played entirely straight.

The show’s other twin pillar is Poison Ivy, Harley’s snarky friend who has the distinct privilege of being written like an actual human. And I don’t mean in terms of goals and motivations; I mean in terms of dialogue quirks and voice delivery. The extremely talented Lake Bell gives her a subdued, stuttering texture that comes off as incredibly naturalistic. Ivy isn’t funny in the way that she delivers one-liners for the audience–she’s funny in the way that an actual person might be funny: saying random crap that pops into her head and often makes no sense, cracking dumb jokes for her own amusement, and reacting to insane situations in believable ways. It’s kind of absurd how likable Ivy is, and a lot of the early audience investment in the show comes from Ivy and Harley’s friendship. The two of them are close from the get-go, a bond that’s shown mostly through daily hangouts and downtime rather than dramatic gestures or shared action sequences. The way the two of them chill and bicker and make each other laugh captures the most relatable and important qualities of a close friendship. Sure there are antics, but contrary to what a lot of media portrays having a best friend doesn’t need to involve lots of ‘antics’. A lot of the time it’s just sitting on the couch for an hour and talking about dumb stuff. By placing a strong, sincere, and constantly-evolving friendship at the center of the show, Harley Quinn got me invested quick, not just in the jokes but in the story.

And once you’re invested in the story, the jokes get that much better. I’ve been talking a lot about how effectively Harley Quinn positions itself as a comedy with strong narrative elements, but let’s be real: the reason the show is so fucking good is because it’s funny as fuck. Asides from just being consistently clever, the show also addresses my initial point about Western Adult Animation being consistently abrasive and mean-spirited. A lot of the show’s jokes come from creativity, genre-riffing, or characters just being funny people rather than at the expense of the cast. I mean, I don’t want to be misleading; there is a ton of gore, swearing, and general evil in this show, and it’s got a streak of not shying away from what many people call politics

All the main characters are self-proclaimed villains after all. But the show always takes characters’ emotions and vulnerabilities seriously, upholding their bonds rather than messing with them for cheap humor. It’s amazing to say about the show that features Bane stomping on a bunch of fish in front of a weeping Aquaman, but Harley Quinn isn’t cynical at all. In fact, it’s deeply hopeful about people and their capacity to overcome their most toxic elements through willpower and effort. In an era when the world often feels like an unchanging wreck worth giving up on and worth throwing aside for a laugh, it’s refreshing as fuck to see a piece of Western adult fiction built around such deep-seated positivity.

I don’t know if I can say much more without getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll cap it at that. Obviously I recommend this show to anyone able to handle excessive blood and a first episode that might slightly overuse the F-bomb. I’d go beyond that though, and say that Harley Quinn is one of my all-time favorites–the anime comedy I always wanted to exist but never came along. I finally understand all those people who want to count Avatar: The Last Airbender as an honorary anime. This show is the shit, the absolute best piece of television I’ve seen this year, and I can only hope that it gets a third season.

Final Reckoning: 9/10, not enough Bane.

Never change, Bane.