If Birds of Prey was a story written by Harley Quinn, then the DC Universe show Harley Quinn is the world straight through her eyes. This is not a comics-accurate interpretation of your favorite characters; If that’s what you’re looking for, run the other way (screaming, probably). If you want to know how Harley Quinn sees Clayface, Bane, Batman, and countless other Batman characters, come on in and join the circus. Harley Quinn is one of the best projects to come out of DC Universe and possibly my favorite portrayal of Harleen Quinzel to date.
If you’ve watched the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Harley and Ivy,” start from there. Think of this as a continuation of that classic episode. Things kick off when Joker ditches Harley onboard a cruise liner to fight Batman all by her lonesome. She ends up stuck in Arkham, convinced that her Puddin’ is going to come to rescue her for a full year. It’s not until the Riddler smuggles in an orange seed for Ivy that things start to turn. Ivy has to knock Harley out to get her out of Arkham. It’s back at Ivy’s apartment and outside the walls of her pseudo-self-imposed prison that Harley knocks some sense into herself. Ivy wraps Harley up in a vine, offers her some kind but firm words, and then Harley has a heart-to-heart conversation with a photo of Dr. Harleen Quinzel, in which the photo talks Harley into diagnosing herself.
This moment sets the tone for the show. The show has a strong emotional core thanks to the relationship between Ivy and Harley. Ivy knows that Harley’s in an abusive relationship, but more importantly she knows Harley should be smart enough to figure that out for herself. She’s a literal Ph.D.-carrying psychologist. While Ivy struggles with trusting Harley, the respect and love they have for each other makes the way that Ivy sticks around through Harley’s bad decisions feel believable. When they come out the other side, it feels like they’ve both grown in meaningful ways.
The story builds off of Harley’s desire to find that independence and get revenge by living well, but she struggles to understand what that actually means. She spends much of the series trying and failing to impress Joker or make him mad rather than be the best possible Harley that Harley can be.
Let’s see what sticks
Harley’s first idea is to crash the bar mitzvah for Penguin’s nephew. This is one place the show goes to for jokes. Even villains have to eat, and they’re bound to form some connections. Penguin has shown a penchant for trying to insinuate himself into high society (and BTAS got some great stories out of this), so it stands to reason that’d end up throwing a bash for his family, but also that he’d invite all his coworkers.
We meet two Harley Quinn favorites here: Bane and Kiteman. The former we’re used to as one of the few villains to have truly bested the Bat, but on this show, he’s an edgy masked man trying to give everything its day of reckoning. The latter, meanwhile, isn’t actually invited to the shindig; he’s just there as a waiter. And yet, this D-grade criminal has the confidence of an A-lister when he hits on Poison Ivy. And yes, he gets to say his catchphrase.
Kiteman is a necessarily silly character, but the show uses him as a way to poke at Ivy. She’s an ultra-competent character; one of the smartest Batman villains out there whether in the comics or cartoons. But she’s a plant person, not a people person, and she’s wildly insecure. She wants badly to be the coolest person in the room, and Kiteman is so convinced that he already is the coolest person in the room that it makes her cringe–especially when she starts developing feelings for him.
I’m building a team
Next, she tries to put together her own villain team, collecting Clayface, Dr. Psycho, King Shark, and a reluctant Ivy. Again the show plays with our conceptions about villains. Clayface is a tragic character, but to Harley, he’s an actor, written in full-size gothic lettering. Clayface here is less a criminal and more a struggling actor who sees an opportunity to ply his craft in every possible situation. He can take the form of a guard, but can’t help but invent a whole backstory for that same guard.
The show also plays with the tropes of villainy. Villains do so many things so similarly that it’s impossible to miss, and so the show wonders if maybe these villains are getting their lairs through an agency. The idea of these chaotic-evil characters having an organization is ridiculous in itself when you try to wonder what the day-to-day of it would be like, and the show mines that over and over. When Dr. Psycho calls Wonder Woman a name–the worst possible name–on live television, the Legion of Doom kicks him out to improve its image.
Later, the Legion becomes somewhat of an office comedy, complete with introductory videos and equipment requisitioning and expensing.
Inside Harley’s Head
Harley Quinn also finds humor and heart in giving us a look into Harley’s psyche and how she ended up where she is. Going into Harley’s head nets us a rare cameo from Frankie Muniz and a look at the moment of Harley’s origin, forcing her to examine the reasoning behind her actions. We meet her parents, too. The show does something really cool here. I loved the way the show didn’t go hard on the classic Jersey gun-moll accent. It’s a part of classic Harley, but it would’ve felt like a put-on for this character.
Only the lack of accent? That’s the put on. When Harley goes back to her New Jersey home, she slips back into her accent the same way people who have moved away from a place with a distinct dialect can do. Harley’s more standard accent was itself a mask to distance herself from her family and, I’m guessing so that people would take her seriously as a doctor.
What rounds out these different angles is the show’s awesome voice cast. Here are just a few favorites:
- Kaley Cuoco as Harley Quinn
- Lake Bell as Poison Ivy
- Diedrich Bader as Batman
- Alan Tudyk as Joker and Clayface
- Ron Funches as King Shark
- J.B. Smoove as Frank, Ivy’s houseplant
- Wanda Sykes as the Queen of Fables
The show’s cast is filled out with veteran comics and great voice actors. Cuoco brings an awesome energy to Harley, while Bell’s chill vibe helps ground the show. Diedrich Bader has played Batman before, and his ultra-serious take works even in this twisted version of Gotham. Alan Tudyk, who also played Mr. Nobody on Doom Patrol, goes bananas in two completely different ways with his characters. Ron Funches and J.B. Smoove are two of the funniest comics working today. Funches’ almost-huggable King Shark is a highlight of the show.
Not every note hits quite right throughout the series. Ivy’s landlord, Sy Borgman (read it aloud) is mostly a visual joke and wasn’t used as effectively as he deserved. Jason Alexander (yes, that one) clearly had a blast with the character. I liked the way Kiteman played on Ivy’s insecurity but the dudebro archetype is still not one I super enjoy watching.
Part of what I like about comics is that they’re not a monolith. There is no one Batman, one Joker, one Harley. Countless versions of each of these characters have existed over the years. I love that we’re getting two different versions of Harley in Harley Quinn and Birds of Prey at almost the same time. Harley Quinn is weird, but it feels definitively Harley. If Harley were a real person, I could imagine her putting her voiceover at the end of the series like a politician approving of a political ad.
With a second season officially announced, consider me stoked for more.