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Wild, chaotic, and deeply silly, the animated Harley Quinn series is a terrific watch

Watch the show, now on HBO Max, for its snarky jokes. Stay for its overtly queer romance.

The cartoon characters Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, covered in muck, in their apartment.
The relationship between Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn is at the center of the animated series Harley Quinn.
DC Universe
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

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Harley Quinn is one of those characters I always feel like I should appreciate more than I do. The Joker’s former psychiatrist-turned-girlfriend is certainly a lot of fun at her best. She whiplashes her way through moods like she’s on a particularly unstable carnival ride, and she has an acidic sense of humor. But too often, writers have struggled to capture the balance between laughter and chaos that makes Harley work. (Arguably, nobody has quite done it since Paul Dini and Bruce Timm invented the character for Batman: The Animated Series in 1992.)

In 2016’s Suicide Squad, Harley’s chaotic energy is turned all the way up, but that movie’s slipshod filmmaking results in a character who has no core. She’s all wild-child energy and occasional wisecracks, with a healthy dose of the camera ogling Margot Robbie, who plays her. In 2020’s Birds of Prey — a much better film — Harley moves to the center of the story in a way that’s fun but also a bit of a headache. She keeps interrupting the story’s momentum to rewind time and show us what really happened. And neither of these films capture her skill with a snarky one-liner.

So where do I turn to become a Harley Quinn fan like so many others are? The animated Harley Quinn series — which debuted on the DC Universe platform in 2019 and now has both its current seasons available on HBO Max — feels like a great start. It skews far more toward comedy than chaos, but that’s just as well. If there’s going to be a character who rips the pages of DC Comics to shreds and reassembles them into a papier-maché sculpture of herself, it’s likely Harley.

What’s perhaps most surprising about Harley Quinn is that the shows it bears the most resemblance to aren’t other superhero shows but, rather, single gals in the big city shows, particularly The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In the series’ first episode, Harley and Joker finally break up, and while she keeps trying to win him back, she soon realizes (with the help of Poison Ivy, her very own Rhoda Morgenstern) that she’s gonna make it after all. Soon, she’s recruiting a crew of low-level supervillains and getting involved in elaborate schemes and heists.

Harley and the Joker face off.
Harley says bye to the Joker in the show’s first episode.
DC Universe

The real fun, however, is in the way Harley and her crew interact with each other. King Shark — a man-sized shark who walks around on land — might be able to bite off people’s heads, but he’s also a social media maven. Clayface is a method actor who keeps developing new characters to turn himself into, a skill that Harley only cares about insofar as it can get her access to places where there’s stuff she might steal.

The series also takes place in a goofily skewed version of the DC Expanded Universe, full of superheroes, their arch-nemeses, and lots and lots of side characters taken just seriously enough to make great comedic targets. (Condiment King and Kite Man have far larger presences than you might expect, given how ridiculous their names are.) Everything about it reflects a deep understanding of both comics lore and sitcom lore, and watching it reminds me of a 10-year-old idly watching TV Land and reading comics at the same time. (Do kids still do this?)

The “deep understanding of both comics lore and sitcom lore” piece of the show has its roots in the team that developed it: sitcom vets Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey. Halpern and Schumacker, in particular, have been funny writers waiting for the right vehicle for a bit. Both have bounced around a series of shows that almost worked but either got canceled or never quite pulled it together (such as the short-lived “regular office workers in a world of superheroes” series Powerless). Harley Quinn captures their strength at crafting great jokes and endlessly flinging them at you. But they have also created a series that has a surprising amount of heart.

See, Harley Quinn is sneakily one of TV’s queerest shows. It’s heavily implied that Batman and the Joker won’t kill each other because they just might be in love with each other, while the relationship between Harley and Ivy at first nods toward the romantic chemistry fans have long read into the two characters, then falls headfirst into it. I won’t tell you how this all resolves, but the will-they/won’t-they between Harley and Ivy in the show’s second season is one of my favorites in a long while. It’s impressive for how their storyline immediately understands that, yeah, Harley and Ivy would kind of be into each other, and that doesn’t have to be salacious or out of the ordinary. They just are.

And, look, there are only 26 episodes of Harley Quinn (so far, hopefully), and they’re all a little over 20 minutes long. Watching all of them won’t take you that long, and if you just want to skip to the show’s second season (when it gets more overtly queer), you won’t have to do a lot of research to figure out what’s happening. It turns out the only thing I needed to truly love Harley Quinn was to see that she, too, could be another single gal in the city, getting over a bad breakup, trying to have it all. Who knew?

Harley Quinn’s two seasons are streaming on HBO Max. You can also watch them on DC Universe, but given recent layoffs at WarnerMedia, that service doesn’t seem long for this world.

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