The live-action and animated originals found at DC Universe go where Marvel’s Netflix series chose not to dwell. While the twisted characters are as dark, the language and violence go further, with even more overt sexuality.
While it has an appeal with live-action, seeing this with Harley Quinn is disturbing. Seeing her animated form cavort through corpses, mass destruction, and friendship reminds us of her WB debut on Batman: The Animated Series, over 25 years ago. So, the first season of the new show, out now on disc from Warner Archive, is aimed at those who grew up with her, not their children.
Everyone is foul-mouthed and the gratuitous violence and mayhem seem to be the animators’ way of showing that they can do it rather than a story’s need for it. Most of the R-rated material is unnecessary and distracts from what is the show’s strength: its characterization.
Long before Margot Robbie was emancipated in February’s Harley Quinn film, the cartoon Harley (Kaley Cuoco) opened her show by breaking up with the Joker (Alan Tudyk), urged on by her gal pal, Poison Ivy (Lake Bell).
Harley wants to be a member of the Legion of Doom, but Mr. J explained sidekicks weren’t welcome. Nor were partners. Her desire forms the spine for the season, as well as evolving her relationship with the Clown Prince of Crime, culminating in a solid showdown finale.
There are plenty of other Gotham figures appearing throughout the series, from a horribly mischaracterized Commissioner Gordon (Chris Meloni) to a fun Riddler (Jim Rash) and tragic Clayface (Tudyk). Even JLA foe Queen of Fables (Wanda Sykes) makes an appearance. And yes, of course, the Dark Knight (Diedrich Bader) himself is a frequent guest as doe members of the League.
The thirteen twenty-two-minute episodes come from executive producers Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey, whose NBC series Powerless was short on funny, which may explain why the funny here is so uneven.
This is about Harley’s growth as a woman; a strong, capable woman charting her own destiny. She has outgrown the Joker’s psychological hooks and has clear goals for herself. The buddy-buddy relationship with Poison Ivy becomes something more in the second season, streaming now. Those who remember her as the dependent, damaged lovesick companion clearly haven’t paid attention to her New 52 comics incarnation or the alterations seen in the feature films.
The trick has been keeping her likable enough for us to root for her and here, the writers have done a fine job. Aided by Cuoco’s assured delivery, this is a Quinn who stands up herself and is ready to commit larceny, carnage, and other crimes to achieve her goals.
Ivy, though, isn’t what we have come to expect. She’s not the ecoterrorist nor is she the gay best friend as she embarks on a heterosexual romance for a while, something that bothers both viewer and Harley.
The character designs are familiar enough and you can quibble with the appearance of some. This Joker seems to be bits and pieces from other incarnations and not to my liking but most of the others, from Batman to Aquaman to Riddler, are just fine. The animation itself is stiff and somewhat limited – the animated features spoiled us. These are certainly watchable and at times fun, but I expected a lot more.
The episodes are on two DVD discs with no special features.