Harley Quinn showrunners pick the best starter episodes for new viewers
We here at EW have been singing the praises of DC Universe's adult animated series Harley Quinn for a while now, but many superhero fans still may not have had the chance to see it. As fun and nerd-centric as DC Universe is, it hasn't achieved the prominence of other streaming platforms (and was additionally hit by some major layoffs this week). But now that both seasons of Harley Quinn are streaming on HBO Max as well (where it joins another DC Universe original, Doom Patrol), it should be accessible to many more fans.
In case you're not sure where to start, we caught up with Harley Quinn showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker to identify some good starter episodes to dip your toes in with the show's unique blend of villains, vulgarity, and violence.
Season 1, episode 4, "Finding Mr. Right"
Why it makes a good entry point: Harley Quinn (Kaley Cuoco) seeks her own superhero nemesis as part of declaring independence from her villainous ex-boyfriend the Joker (Alan Tudyk). She aims for Batman (Dietrich Bader) and then Superman (James Wolk), but keeps getting stuck with Robin (Jacob Tremblay) — the Damian Wayne incarnation.
"We were thinking, who's the most comedic nemesis we can come up with? Who's one who, when they hear the name, a supervillain would just slump?" Schumacker says. "We wanted to go with the Damian Wayne Robin, thinking we could really play into his juvenile characteristics. He's super-smart, he's actually a pretty worthy adversary, but to the casual fan he's a little boy. We wanted to play up that he looks like a little boy, he sounds even younger than he is, he's a petulant brat with a big vocabulary, and he's just a little s—. We also thought the sex talk that he has with Batman, who is his dad, at the end of the episode was too good not to include. That removed any doubts about including this version of Robin."
The episode climaxes with a massive fight between Robin, Batman, Joker, Harley, and her best friend Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) on an episode of the fictional talk show Tawny. Maybe superhero rivalries aren't all that different from daytime TV drama after all.
"This episode features a lot of the characters in the universe and the bitchy attitudes they all have towards each other," Halpern says. "They like messy drama, it's almost Real Housewives-y."
Season 1, episode 6, "You're a Damn Good Cop, Jim Gordon"
Why it makes a good entry point: This episode really puts a spotlight on Harley Quinn's unique depiction of Commissioner Gordon (Christopher Meloni), who is a lot more unhinged here than how he usually comes across in DC stories. As a result, "You're a Damn Good Cop, Jim Gordon" — which finds Gordon bonding with the severed hand of Clayface (Tudyk) — shows how the familiar Batman mythos is hilariously twisted in Harley Quinn.
"We had a lot of conversations with DC about how Gordon is this intractable guy in the comics, and we make him an alcoholic with a lot of PTSD," Halpern says. "But we tested a couple episodes, and Gordon's character tested through the roof. People loved it! Most portrayals of police on TV are either hyper-competent moralistic guys or they're hyper-evil dirty cops. We portrayed Gordon as an incompetent policeman who is overwhelmed by the emotional demands of the job and who frequently acts out with violence, which as we're seeing is maybe a more accurate description of a police officer."
This depiction totally fits within the world of the show, where as police commissioner of Gotham City, Gordon has to wake up every day, go to his job, and deal with whatever insane crimes are being perpetrated by the likes of the Joker or Harley that day. In Halpern's words, "Every day for him is like the movie Seven. You're not an emotionally okay human being if you see that every day."
Another reason this version of Gordon works in Harley Quinn is because he's being portrayed by Meloni, who knows a lot about portraying both righteous cops (in Law & Order: SVU) and slightly mad men (Happy!).
"Meloni is the king of playing slightly unhinged," Halpern says. "He's a really thoughtful actor; he thinks through every single part of the performance, which I feel like allows him to go to these wacky places without the character going totally out of control."
Season 1, episode 8, "L.O.D.R.S.V.P."
Why it makes a good entry point: In order to fully "make it" as a supervillain, Harley believes the thing she needs more than anything else is an invite to join the Legion of Doom, the supervillain organization led by Lex Luthor (Giancarlo Esposito). The portrayal of the Legion of Doom as a fairly traditional corporate office again highlights Harley Quinn's fresh take on the DC mythos, and the strife between Harley and Ivy (who doesn't want to join) carries emotional weight that plays into the show's longer arc.
"We love the mundanity of these supervillains and seeing them in a corporate culture," Schumacker says. "They're supervillains, but they have HR and they have a kitchen with a coffee machine. All that stuff was ripe for us and our sensibilities. We tried to include things like that in shows like Powerless, but it really comes out even better when you're able to show the actual famous supervillains themselves in these situations. The Legion of Doom is no different from any other corporation. With Luthor in particular, Giancarlo has that dryness and that stoicism where he doesn't have to raise his voice to be intimidating and calculating."
But while the Harley Quinn team was able to get away with spicy takes on the likes of Commissioner Gordon, Halpern says their first pass at Aquaman (Chris Diamantopoulos) — who crashes Harley's appearance at the Legion of Doom induction party — was thoroughly rejected.
"For our first take on Aquaman, we embraced the Momoa-ness, and he became super-bro. It was one of the few times where DC was like, 'F— no, do not do this,'" Halpern recalls. "They were like, 'You have to treat Aquaman with more respect.' So then we were like, okay, fine. If you want Aquaman to be more regal, we'll make him a pompous douche. So we did, thinking that it would also be bad, but they were like, 'Thank you for respecting Aquaman.'"
Season 2, episode 4, "Thawing Hearts"
Why it makes a good entry point: The gold standard of animated DC adaptations remains Batman: The Animated Series. Harley Quinn owes BTAS a lot, since it created the character of Harley Quinn in the first place and showed early on what a great duo she made with Poison Ivy. One of BTAS' most famous episodes introduced the concept that Batman villain Mr. Freeze only committed crimes in service of saving his wife, Nora, from a rare disease. In this riff on "Heart of Ice," Harley Quinn declares independence from its predecessor while also giving Harley a lesson in true love just as she's starting to fall for Ivy.
"We were trying to lay breadcrumbs though the whole series about Harley and Ivy eventually becoming a romantic couple," Halpern says. "We wanted to make sure that no one complained that there wasn't setup. We wanted Harley to open herself back up to being in love and being with someone. When someone gets out of a bad relationship it's like, 'Well, I'm never doing that again.'"
But, Halpern continues, "Freeze is different from the other characters in Batman's gallery. Although he's gone a bit insane, his quest is a noble one: bringing back the person he loves. This is a great episode of Harley getting the chance to see what real love looks like. She's constantly looking to find her confirmation bias that there's no such thing as love, and anything she sees she immediately twists to fit that narrative. The only way to get her out of that is if she's faced with an act of true love so powerful that she's got to face the fact that true love exists and she hasn't had it yet."
Season 2, episode 7, "There's No Place to Go But Down"
Why it makes a good entry point: Bane (James Adomian) is arguably the funniest character in the entire show, and this episode is his spotlight. Adomian's Bane voice already sounds like an exaggerated version of Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises, but "There's No Place To Go But Down" takes the comparison further as Bane jails Harley and Ivy in the iconic pit prison from that film. Except in this version, Bane has turned it into a progressive jail based on rehabilitation.
"The whole time we kept thinking about how Bane would be so sympathetic towards prison reform, how that would be his most passionate issue because he grew up in this pit," Halpern says. "We were trying to figure out how Two-Face would get rid of him — we didn't want to kill Bane because we love the character and want to do more with him — and we needed Harley and Ivy to be siloed off by themselves so they could come to a romantic realization. So then we were just like, they should be stuck in Bane's pit! Then we were started pitching, well, what is Bane's pit like?"
One of the main things Bane's pit offers is a special appearance from comedian George Lopez, playing himself. Ivy gets stuck opening for Lopez, and eschews jokes in favor of a very emotional and dramatic speech.
"That's one of my favorite moments in the series, even though it's not a joke. It's a testament to Lake and director Colin Heck," Halpern says. "Kaley also gives such an amazing performance in that episode. Kaley has to do a lot in our show, she has to hit a ton of levels. Everyone else on the show gets to stay within their box they've created, and they do such an amazing job, but we told Kaley she was going to have to go out of hers because that's who Harley is, she's in a million places at once. She did it, and she worked really hard to do it. That episode speaks to the things we feel we do really well on our show."