Harley Quinn is the DC Universe’s greatest underdog story. Created for a throwaway gag in a 1992 episode of the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series, Harley has grown into one of DC’s most popular and marketable characters, the lead of multiple comics series, three live-action feature films, and a host of Hot Topic t-shirts. In 2019, she got her own, irreverent adult animated action-comedy series, but it was launched on the short-lived DC Universe streaming platform, where no one but pre-sold comics nerds would ever find it. Like the rest of the DC Universe library, Harley Quinn has migrated to HBO Max (as well as reruns on TNT), where it has a second chance to win the mass audience it so justly deserves. Its third season, which debuts on Max this Thursday, is as terrific as ever, accessible, riotously funny, and pointedly contemporary. Harley Quinn is the best Batman animated series since Batman: The Animated Series, standing as a testament to the flexibility of its stable of characters while also being its own, delightfully different entity.
If you haven’t seen the show before, be aware that I’m about to spoil the ending of season two.
So Many Laughs, You’ll Think You’ve Been Poisoned
The second season of Harley Quinn ended with the titular criminal antihero (voice of Kaley Cuoco) and her best friend Ivy (Lake Bell) finally confessing their love for each other and riding off into the sunset together. Season Three picks up with the happy couple on their quasi-honeymoon, which Harley calls the “Eat, Bang! Kill Tour,” traveling the globe, enjoying fine dining, and tossing TMZ photographers into the propellers of Ben Affleck’s yacht. When they finally return home, Harley and Ivy try to settle into their new relationship. The first two seasons saw Ivy helping Harley to escape the codependency of her abusive ex-boyfriend the Joker (Alan Tudyk) and reach her full potential, and now Harley wants to return the favor and support Ivy to fulfill her own life goals.
Granted, Harley’s best self is a self-aware, self-sufficient, baseball bat-wielding chaos machine, whereas Ivy is potentially a godlike elemental with the power to reshape the Earth as she sees fit, so the stakes for her emotional and professional growth are somewhat higher. Meanwhile, their shape-shifting housemate Clayface (also Tudyk) tries to score a role in the new Thomas Wayne biopic directed by James Gunn (himself), trigger-happy maniac Commissioner Gordon (Christopher Meloni) runs for mayor, and Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Sanaa Lathan) navigates her new relationship with clingy boyfriend Bruce Wayne/Batman (Dietrich Bader).
The season unfolds with a continuation of the show’s well-balanced blend of raunchy comedy, over-the-top bloody violence, subversion of comic book tropes, and showbiz satire. Harley Quinn is the kind of witty and joke-dense comedy that you’ll occasionally have to pause so you don’t miss the next three jokes while you’re laughing. The series has grown well beyond the novelty of simply putting familiar, often kid-friendly characters into obscene situations — Harley Quinn’s writers room is sharp as hell, so comfortable with their specific versions of these characters that their pre-existing baggage or context is rarely what makes them funny. The series offers a healthy serving of metatextuality, but it’s a side dish, not the main course. Like in any sitcom worth its salt, the comedy comes from the characters and how they relate to each other and the situations in which they find themselves, whether or not they have a basis in prior comics, movies, etc.
From the beginning, the heart of the show has been the dynamic between manic and flighty Harley and sober misanthrope Ivy. Even long before the pair’s relationship turned romantic, the overarching theme of Harley Quinn has been growth and redemption through friendship. They’ve been catalysts for each other’s evolution into the versions of themselves that could work as a couple. But, now that they’re together, they’re still evolving. Must further growth mean growing apart?
The season’s story arc adds friction to the Harley/Ivy romance without resorting to cheap tricks to tear them apart or turn them against each other. Harley is a character who, until recently, was defined by her unhealthy relationship with another person. Now, her series challenges her to build a healthy one, and not to disappear into it. Ivy’s journey has been about learning to trust and depend on other people, and this season shows her testing the limits of that trust and trying not to exploit it. Paired up or not, each character still has to walk her own path, and this keeps the “happily ever after” romance from smothering the show’s dramatic tension.
Off the Rails in the Best Possible Way
Harley Quinn owes as much to The Venture Bros. as it does to DC Comics, depicting supervillainy as just another career with its own set of mundane routines, rituals, and politics. But, where The Venture Bros. created caricatured stand-ins for the comics and cartoon characters its creators enjoyed as kids, Harley Quinn’s team has access to the actual bench of DC characters. Yet, despite the broadly comedic tone of the series, very few of the familiar characters feel like outright parodies of themselves.
Long-lived comic book superheroes are famously elastic characters, reinvented over and over again to suit the demands of a new audience, medium, or creative team. Harley Quinn plays Batman for laughs, and it’s hardly the first take on the character to do so. Its versions of him, Joker, and company are conceived with an obvious love and understanding of what makes these characters tick, what we like about them, and why that’s funny. Like The LEGO Batman Movie, Harley Quinn’s greatest asset is that it acknowledges that the world of superheroes is deeply silly, and it should be.
The show’s tone also allows its storytellers to subvert and comment on the superhero genre in ways that more serious long form portrayals can’t pull off. Superhero comics are built on the illusion of change, but they’re actually cyclical. Characters grow (or die), but almost invariably return to their most recognizable state so as not to confuse a casual audience. Harley Quinn herself is a rare exception to this rule, having shed her original role as the Joker’s brainwashed sidekick and become a self-assured anti-heroine across various media. Appropriately, her animated series offers all of its characters, and Gotham City itself, the freedom to change, and those changes stick because it’s funnier that way.
The more Harley Quinn diverges from the self-serious world it’s sprung from, the more unique and outlandish its stories can be. For example: Last season, the Joker set aside his life of crime in order to dedicate himself to raising the beloved step-children who came into his life while he was suffering from prolonged amnesia. This season, he’s still at it, applying the wicked brilliance with he once used to terrorize Gotham to help his stepson Benicio get into a bilingual immersion program at his elementary school. His new nemesis is a rich, obnoxious PTA mom named Debbie. The situation is all the funnier because of the extent to which he is still the fucking Joker, but it rules because of the even more different direction the story takes him from there.
Harley Quinn’s license to bend the genre as far as it’ll go also allows it to be more openly progressive than most other mainstream superhero adaptations. This goes well beyond centering the show around a pair of bisexual women — Harley Quinn is unsubtly anti-cop and anti-capitalist, going so far as to explicitly endorse a socialist political platform during the latter half of the season. The show’s chief recurring antagonist is Commissioner Gordon, one of the few characters who is a straight-up irreverent parody, not only of Gordon but to the entire institution of the police. Harley Quinn can critique such institutions without reservation because it’s uninterested in preserving any sort of status quo, either in its fictional world or in the real one. It’s a show about deep, ongoing, and irreversible change, and it commits to it one hundred percent.
Batman: The Animated Series, the show in which Harley was born, was created with a deliberate timelessness, blending the aesthetics of the then-modern 1990s with 1940s Art Deco futurism and applying them to comics stories that stemmed primarily from the 1970s. That’s one of the reasons it holds up so well — it’s the best of Batman preserved in amber, a point to which future audiences can always refer and iterate upon. Harley Quinn, in contrast, takes the essence of its source materials and makes them feel like products of the modern day. It treats them as if they’re in the now, and acknowledges that “now” is never the same as it was yesterday.