Harley Quinn is not exactly an underappreciated character. The Batman villain and longtime Joker love interest has become a pop-culture phenomenon since she debuted on Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, and she can currently be seen in numerous comic books and in live-action films (including the upcoming Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)), where she'll be played by Oscar-nominated star, Margot Robbie. So, the first reaction to DC Universe's new Harley Quinn animated series might be understandable: "Her again?"
Creators Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker and Dean Lorey (all of whom worked on the short-lived DC-themed NBC sitcom Powerless) don't quite justify the creation of yet another Harley Quinn starring vehicle, but they do have fun with the chance to cut Harley loose, unleashing a torrent of blood and swear words (and even some pixelated genitals) in the very much adult-targeted Harley Quinn. The show works best when it embraces all-out mayhem, and its serialized story about Harley's efforts to escape from the Joker's shadow gets fairly tiresome fairly quickly.
In part that's because she seems to spend every episode learning more or less the same lesson. As the show opens, Harley (voiced by The Big Bang Theory's Kaley Cuoco) is in her classic animated series outfit, working alongside her "puddin'" as they fight Batman (Diedrich Bader) for the millionth time. "You think we're afraid of the Joker's girlfriend?" some goon scoffs at her, and she bashes in his kneecaps for daring to question her.
But when Batman gains the upper hand, the Joker (Alan Tudyk) just tosses Harley aside, leaving her to rot in Arkham for an entire year. Thanks in part to her newfound friendship with Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), Harley realizes that her relationship with the Joker was toxic and that she needs to get away from him. She sheds her old look for the more modern pigtails-and-baseball-bat style and declares herself the Joker's enemy.
But he's still a looming presence throughout the series, and Harley seems to forget her revelations about independence by the beginning of each new episode, even though the series follows an ongoing storyline about her plan to establish her own presence as a supervillain. After breaking up with the Joker, she puts together her own crew of D-list villains (Dr. Psycho, Clayface, King Shark) and attempts to join the prestigious Legion of Doom, alongside stars like Lex Luthor and Black Manta. The whole time, Ivy retains her snarky, deadpan support system; a villain who resents being called evil (she identifies as an eco-terrorist), doesn't like team-ups and prefers plants to people.
As it has been in many recent Harley stories, the relationship between Harley and Ivy is at the show's core, although here it's not romantic (despite occasional jokey winks toward the idea). Harley is still way too fixated on the Joker to entertain any other prospects, and Ivy ends up in an amusing love-hate situation with upbeat loser Kite Man (Matt Oberg). Bell is great as the sarcastic, aloof Ivy, who genuinely cares for Harley but has contempt for everyone and everything else, and the voice cast is full of comedy stars making the most of their goofy roles. If anything, Cuoco is the weak link, giving Harley a generic girl-power attitude and occasionally ineffectively channeling Arleen Sorkin's iconic voice work (especially when she refers to "Mistah J").
It's the oddball supporting cast that provides Harley Quinn with the most laughs, from Tony Hale's pint-sized, woman-hating Dr. Psycho to James Adomian's very Tom Hardy-sounding Bane to Tudyk doing double duty as the achingly pretentious thespian, Clayface (Tudyk's Joker sounds more like a riff on Mark Hamill's renowned voice performance). While Powerless was too tame and low-key, making mundane office jokes while superhero battles happened off-screen, the animated format allows Harley Quinn's creators to go big, with things like the lavish, self-congratulatory lair of buffoonish supervillain Maxie Zeus and the very Silicon Valley-like headquarters for the Legion of Doom. The animation style is fairly rudimentary, but the characters and locations are colorful and eye-catching.
DC fans will have a great time with all the cameos and supporting appearances, and the show's creators find fun new ways to approach familiar characters like Robin (here imagined as a cute, naive little boy voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and the Penguin (who is very, very proud of his nephew's bar mitzvah). They rely a bit too heavily on the comedy of well-known comic-book characters using swear words and talking about sex, but there's some clever commentary on the nature of superhero stories, from Harley looking for a nemesis via online matchmaking to Dr. Psycho being ousted from the Legion of Doom for using insensitive language.
Then again, The Lego Batman Movie covered similar ground (the codependent Joker/Batman relationship here is basically lifted from that movie) with a more creative visual style and some catchy songs. Harley Quinn provides a fun alternative to the grim, overly serious style of most "adult" takes on superhero stories, and the 22-minute episodes each reliably provide a few laughs and are easy to watch. They just don't quite get past that "Her again?" feeling.
Starring the voices of Kaley Cuoco, Lake Bell, Alan Tudyk, Tony Hale, Diedrich Bader, Ron Funches and J.B. Smoove, Harley Quinn premieres November 29 on DC Universe.