Harley Quinn review: There's only one thing holding this sensational show back

·6 min read
Harley Quinn review: There's only one thing holding this sensational show back

When a sitcom really works, you start pre-laughing. That's when a recurring character shows up, and you just know they are going to say something hilarious, so you start giggling before words come out of their mouth. Enter Bane (voiced by James Adomian), a villainous chunkroid born in actual/metaphorical darkness. Harley Quinn's Bane is always funny, and in the cartoon's third season (streaming Thursdays on HBO Max), he is very upset about his pasta maker. It was a wedding present for Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) and Kite Man (Matt Oberg). But Ivy ran off with new girlfriend Harley (Kaley Cuoco) — and the pasta maker was never returned. "It's gauche to keep the gift!!!" insists Bane, with that voice that sounds like a frog sneezing a cannonball.

First, Bane tries to blow everybody up. Then, he seeks counseling. ("My therapist thinks we would all benefit from a group session!!!!!!") That trajectory — from explosive to emotional — sums up this sneaky-clever glitterbomb farce. Harley Quinn comes on strong with R-rated thrills: Nasty language, an Eyes Wide Shut orgy, blood fountains of gore. This isn't a DC movie where two people kiss once in a three-hour running time. "We've been doing a ton of f---ing!" is how Harley sums up her first few weeks with Ivy. But there's also a low-key sweetness and an edge of genuine provocation that goes beyond shock value. Some of the oldest characters in comic books appear in a new light. Here, Joker (Alan Tudyk) is a proud socialist demanding education reform — and a stepdad who always helps with math homework.

Harley Quinn Season 3
Harley Quinn Season 3

HBO Max Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy

After a 2019 debut on the DC Universe streaming service, the show survived one corporate ravaging and made the leap to HBO Max. Now here comes another corporate ravaging, and I desperately hope the show continues to thrive. (Hands off, Zaslav, no tax write-offs here!) Season 3 took two years to arrive, and it's generally great. Watching this week's episode, I realized Harley Quinn was my favorite current superhero TV series. Watching the next few episodes, I started wondering if this is the best Batman anything of the last decade. Then I got to the finale; we'll discuss that later.

In the grand scheme, season 3 goes Full Ivy. The plant-controlling super-scientist once yearned for a world reclaimed by the prehistoric flora. Ever-supportive Harley begs Ivy to restart that old project, which will cure climate change — and, like, upend human civilization.

Solid concept for a blockbuster adventure: terraforming, mutant plants, a bit of [Bane voice] TOPICALITY!!!! It's also a solution to a sacred sitcom problem. The near-perfect second season accelerated HarlIvy's will-they-or-won't-they romance toward a blissfully queer happy ending. Now they're just a regular couple, with problems that are familiar even when they're bonkers. Harley and her progressive alien deathcore band are practicing too loudly when Ivy needs quiet laboratory time. The ladies go to a party (the 83rd Annual Supervillain awards!) where their exes awkwardly show up. And it turns out Ivy never told Harley that she hooked up with Catwoman (Sanaa Lathan).

Living-together issues, ex issues, trust issues. We could be watching any bleak-confessional FX relationship sitcom. Showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker make a successful leap into couples comedy, while ably juggling a couple other season-long arcs. Commissioner Gordon (Christopher Meloni) runs a tough-on-crime campaign for Mayor, with ultra-criminal Two-Face (Andy Daly) as his campaign manager. Clayface (Tudyk again) gets a big break in his acting career thanks to a new biopic about Thomas Wayne.

That film-within-a-show could just be one long meta-gag — a CGI mustache reference, James Gunn as himself — but it's a key thread in an unexpected subplot. Previously, this version of Batman (Diedrich Bader) was a dick-ish Dark Knight joke. Season 3 starts off with a few gags in that direction, imagining Batman as a clingy boyfriend to a tragically hip Catwoman. But this week's fabulous episode features a sincere Bat-Cat Define The Relationship convo, which doubles as a lovely musical number. The season moves in a different direction from there, with Bats taking a headline role. (The eighth episode is titled, with no exaggeration, "Batman Begins Forever.")

Harley Quinn Season 3
Harley Quinn Season 3

HBO Max Harley Quinn

There is, to put it mildly, a lot of comic book television these days. The tones can veer from regal (like Netflix's The Sandman) to playful (Amazon's The Boys) to Marvel's everything-connects cosmos or the CW's budget cheekiness. Harley Quinn is on another level, I think, because its creators seem so deliriously unencumbered. They're not following any strict adaptation procedure; their throwaway subplots don't need to fold up into one Phase or another. Like, I recently watched Sandman painstakingly recreate a 33-year-old comic book issue as a multi-million dollar CGI-blasted TV episode. It's a fine recreation, but the original issue wasn't a museum piece. It was punk rock, dangerous — new. At best, that's the Harley Quinn feeling. Consider the subplot about the Court of Owls, a whole big Gotham Illuminati mythology thing. I feel like the Court's been done to death at this point, but I just about I fell out of my chair when Joker called it "a bunch of old straight white dudes jerking each other off."

That table-flipping sensibility offers serious renegade appeal. So I worry just a little about the direction season 3 ultimately takes, not to mention the finale's tease for future seasons. To be clear, I badly want more seasons. (Stay away, Zaslav! Go cancel Pennyworth or something!) Without spoiling too much, I'll just say that there's a lot of Batman, and an ongoing suggestion that Harley herself is becoming less of a villain than a morally upright anti-hero.

Both subplots come from the same instinct, I think. As Harley Quinn gets bigger, it becomes more recognizable as a certain kind of comic book story. History is full of supervillains who became so real-world popular that they simply have to become heroes. And everyone has some hot take on how to explain Batman, or how to re-investigate Bruce Wayne's psyche. These are very normal things for a Gotham City show to do, and the only thing holding Harley Quinn back is the creeping feeling that it wants to be the craziest possible version of a normal Batman story. Do we even need another (very good!) story where a lot of characters worry about Bruce Wayne's feelings? I'll take the progressive alien deathcore. Grade: B+