Episode 1 Review
Synopsis: Harley Quinn has finally broken things off with the Joker and attempts to make it on her own as the criminal Queenpin of Gotham City. In this adult animated action-comedy series which also features Poison Ivy and a whole cast of heroes and villains, old and new, from the DC Universe.
Starring: Kaley Cuoco, Lake Bell, Alan Tudyk, Ron Funches, J.B. Smoove, Jason Alexander, Wanda Sykes, Giancarlo Esposito, Natalie Morales, Jim Rash, Diedrich Bader, Tony Hale, Christopher Meloni
Produced By: Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, Dean Lorey, Sam Register, and Kaley Cuoco
Harley Quinn, the co-creation of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, has been around for 26 years and has become a fixture in both animation and live-action movies, shows and comic books. More so in recent time, she's managed to come out of the shadow of her romantic interest the Joker and exist as a own unique character in her own right. Come this Black Friday, November 29, 2019, Harley Quinn will debut her own animated series on the DC Universe streaming service, but this one is for mature audiences only. The story, fittingly enough, explores Harley breaking ties with the Joker and striking out to become the top villain of Gotham City and a member of the infamous Legion of Doom, a team of premiere super villains, with the help of her best friend Poison Ivy and her crew of misfits that no one else would pay any mind to.
It's no surprise the series premiere "Till Death Do Us Part" has the task of setting up the cast and the world of "Harley Quinn" in addition to the overall stakes. The episode starts off on Joker and Harley's latest caper and immediately gets to the core conflict revolving around them. Harley wants to be famous for being a supervillain and not 'Joker's girlfriend,' but Joker stills sees her as a sidekick rather than a partner and butts in on one of her bits as they terrorize a yacht full of rich elite white bankers celebrating stealing money from the poor... yes, it's another stab at Gotham class warfare that we've seen in movies like "The Dark Knight Rises" or "Joker" but a whole lot more irreverent. After subjecting the armed bankers to horrific displays of violence, Joker and Harley come face to face with Batman. Despite being once again used as a prop to set up his escape, Harley clings to Joker's false promise he will break her out like a lovesick puppy.
The story skips ahead six months later to Arkham Asylum where Poison Ivy continues in vain to try and convince Harley that the Joker doesn't love her and she should leave him. Three months pass. By then, even the rest of Arkham agrees with Ivy but Harley remains obstinate and hopeful the Joker will spring her out. After one whole year, Ivy is able to stage a break out and gases Harley. She wakes up in Ivy's place and gets an earful from Ivy's irritable plant, Frank. Ivy continues to try and help her friend and reminds Harley she once diagnosed her and tricks her into a self-diagnosis. But given the show, an old photo of Harleen comes to life and converses with Harley but only she can see it. With the revelation of being stuck in an abusive co-dependency, Harley confronts Joker. But to Ivy's disgust, she fails to break up with him and falls for his latest lie, he was keeping her away for her own protection from the war-bent Batman and Commissioner Gordon. Still the best friend she can be, Ivy comes up an elaborate ruse to finally get Harley to see the light... all in thanks to Riddler and a fake caper specifically catered to the Joker's ego. The finale culminates in a violent showdown between Harley and Joker (and all his henchmen) in his funhouse hideout.
The Arkham scenes, in particular, does provide a look into the kind of humor we're going to expect for the series as a whole. My own favorite bits were probably the two guards reducing a boy to tears for his nearly fatal mistake and a stab at Costco. But there's also some of the more 'modern' humorous takes like Harley deconstructing one of Ivy's ex-boyfriends from college or later on, Joker's critique of Riddler that is standard fare on other shows like "The Venture Bros" or "Rick and Morty." There's even an amusing exchange about Reese Witherspoon. And suffice to say, there are some jokes set up here, almost innocuously, that get paid off in later episodes. Some jokes land, some don't. But that's comedy. More importantly, the episode shows this adult comedy does have the potential to be highly entertaining.
For Harley, many fans have remained devoted to her original voice, Arleen Sorkin. That said, there's likely going to be the usual critiques that instead of "honoring" Sorkin we have Kaley Cuoco sounding... like Kaley Cuoco with a potty mouth. But if one can remain objective, Cuoco does have the heart, emotion, and comic timing to cut it as the latest actor to embody Harley. I admit I went in skeptical she could stand out from the likes of Arleen Sorkin, Tara Strong, or Hynden Walch - nor did I watch any of "The Big Bang Theory" - but Cuoco proves she has the chops. Among the cast, the contender for being the most reinterpreted goes to Commissioner Gordon. Instead of the usual stalwart ally of Batman, on "Harley Quinn," Gordon is off the reservation and riddled with PTSD. In his first scene, he berates Harley with an onslaught of overly elaborate metaphors to get her to squeal on the Joker's location only for Batman to be the straight man/good cop to reel him back to reality. But like a light switch, the mention of just about anything will set him off - even Harley's delusional belief that marriage and a honeymoon is in her near future. Chris Meloni, hot off the "Happy!" dark comedy series, was a smart choice as Gordon. Batman is pretty much Batman as we know and love. The straight laced... straight man of the series. Diedrich Bader more or less sounds like the Batman he voiced in "Batman: The Brave and The Bold." Poison Ivy still retains the classic elements of Harley but with less man hating supervillain and more the kind of character of seems to not care about anything but ultimately cares the most. Ivy essentially is Harley's surrogate conscience moving forward. Lake Bell's emotionally aloof Ivy and Cuoco's optimistic to a fault Harley is another perfect interpretation of the classic Harley and Ivy dysfunctional BFFs we've come to love and fear. Jim Rash as the Riddler is one of those perfect castings. He becomes the role and delivers brilliantly. Alan Tudyk's take on the Joker is also commendable. While it's nowhere like Joaquim Phoenix or Heath Ledger, I would dare to call it a millennial re-imagining of Caesar Romero with a hint of Mark Hamill.
A safe bet that the most polarizing aspect of the series and episode is the TV-MA content. Essentially from the start of the episode, there's f-bombs, gratuitous violence, and crass characters. The content that is shown goes beyond even what we've seen in the DC Universe direct-to-video movies even. Blood, protruding bone, vomit, melting faces, gunshots, head shots, other person's face wearing, more blood and guts galore, and regurgitated corpses. The series is not for the faint of heart nor those used to the more G or PG rated fare. The combination of world building, Harley's emotional revelation and delusions, and the adult absurd comedy do fight each other to the point of obfuscating tone and slowing the pacing of the episode at times, but that's to be expected to set up the core cast, the series, the plots, and the arcs in under 23 minutes. The humor is a dealer's choice of the classics, one liners, visual gags, modern, and meta. While showrunners Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey may have been tarnished by the death of NBC's short-lived DC sitcom Powerless, and "Till Death Does Us Part" has the typical "meh-kinda off" premiere syndrome, the episode succeeds in presenting the show's balls to the wall format and not playing it safe.
Looking ahead, the series really opens up and shines once the episode 1 niceties are in the rear view mirror and the remainder of the season earns the hype as one of the strongest opening seasons of any recent DC animated series and proves a comedy can work. "Till Death Does Us Part" is a 6 out of 10 from me but the overall first 13 episodes gets a solid 8 out of 10. "Harley Quinn" tells a unique tale of redemption and self-actualization. The first 13 episodes of Harley Quinn will stream weekly on Fridays starting on November 29 until February.
Rating: 6 out of 10