DC Universe's cartoon rom-com bloodfest is a new kind of Bat-spin-off.

By Darren Franich
June 25, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Sometimes you just love a character on a TV show, and boy oh boy, do I love King Shark. He's maybe the eighth lead on Harley Quinn, not even the most important henchman in his criminal crew. But I get so excited every time the animated rom-com gorefest, currently streaming on the DC Universe platform, finds room for its resident toothy-grinned giant clothed fish. He's voiced with boundless enthusiasm by comedian Ron Funches, who always sounds like he just got done laughing over the latest plot summary: Shark Man discusses sushi preferences, Shark Man fires chaingun turret off a freshly welded Fury Roadmobile, Shark Man returns to his emotionally distant father's undersea kingdom for an arranged marriage. That last one was merely the B-plot of this season's best episode, and you really need to start paying attention to a show where a B-plot can feature an extended scatological riff on "Under the Sea," from The Little Mermaid.

Harley Quinn is, technically, a spin-off focusing on an increasingly famous Batman villain. Harley Quinn was invented in 1992 for the sacred Batman: The Animated Series, and achieved mainstream visibility when Margot Robbie started posting pictures in costume from 2016's Suicide Squad. This new show splits the difference between those two influences, incorporating a huge cast of Batman characters into a kitchen-sink saga of ultraviolence, ultra-sexuality, and ultra-goofery. The result is a lacerating farce that doubles as an effusive romance, full of brainy one-liners and sharp new variations on familiar characters.

It's a trip and a half, a hidden gem in our days of TV plenty. I missed the series entirely when it debuted last year but got hooked on season 2, which begins with my favorite kind of Bat-premise: No Man's Land. In the premiere, Gotham City gets cut off from the rest of the United States, leaving the local baddies to carve up their dark metropolis into a series of ruthless principalities. Penguin (Wayne Knight) gets his own neighborhood, Riddler (Jim Rash) gets his own college campus, Mr. Freeze (Alfred Molina) builds a giant snow globe around his fortress, and Bane (James Adomian) turns a giant hole in the ground into a rehabilitation facility where the inmates host their own talent show.

Harley herself is voiced by Kaley Cuoco, audibly stoked about all the swear words CBS never allowed on The Big Bang Theory. The series crucializes Harley's relationship with Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), a world-weary counterbalance to Harley's all-exclamation-points-all-the-time mania. Harley and Ivy are a secretly typical thirtysomething friend couple, weathering broken relationships and the general messiness of the modern world. They're living in a far-flung relationship sitcom, where the terrible ex-boyfriend is the Joker (Alan Tudyk) and Ivy's hipster activism might manifest into mass CEO murder. The supporting cast dements familiar comedy archetypes. Clayface (also Tudyk) is a decloseted aspiring actor. Commissioner Gordon (Christopher Meloni) rage-drinks through delusions of grandeur. Catwoman (Sanaa Lathan) is a painfully awesome glamour queen — think Jemima Kirke on Girls, with an only slightly shakier moral code.

Harley Quinn was developed by Justin Halpern, Dean Lorey, and Patrick Schumacker. The latter is the showrunner, and his writing staff expanded season 2 into a couple different epic Gotham tales, though the main serialized arc centered on Ivy's relationship with, of all people, Kite Man (Matt Oberg). A lot of the usual franchise-corporate guard rails seem to be removed, and some major icons died.

What's more impressive is how cleverly Harley Quinn keeps building its own askew DC universe. The best episode saw Harley hosting a bachelorette party for Ivy on Themyscira, best known as Wonder Woman's home, rebooted as a tropical gal-getaway with a nearby island reserved for male strippers. The "Bachelorette" script by Sarah Peters worked as a tilted meditation on two levels of rah-rah sisterhood, shotgunning triumphant Amazonian feminism through a boozy lost weekend of bad decisions. That adventure fully embraced the notion that Harley and Ivy are waayyyyy more than friends, a somewhat canonical plot development that is either extremely progressive for a superhero-adjacent TV show or an unabashed way to get two attractively drawn ladies into bed.

Possible to overthink in a few directions, and equally possible that the series' nonchalant violence will turn off some people. I don't know if I could define the specific audience for Harley Quinn. People who wish Gotham had been more like You're the Worst? People who want their Batman characters to talk fluently about the problem of "white cisgendered heterosexual male crime lords"? Birds of Prey skeptics who worry that R-ratings don't go far enough? But there's a welcoming-to-everyone charm in how this series combines straight-up satire and old-fashioned character comedy. Z-level baddies get major spotlight moments — especially Doctor Psycho, brought to life by Tony Hale in a ravenous vocal performance. All the obvious heroes are doofs. Batman (Diedrich Bader) is a rich gasbag; Gordon is a declining slob. And show's version of Bane is a constant direct assault on the Tom Hardy character from The Dark Knight Rises, an intra-corporate parody that makes Deadpool's Wolverine rips look soft by comparison.

Season 1 is, in broad strokes, a violently extreme breakup comedy. But the Joker-Harley coupling mostly takes a back seat in season 2, which finds room for cosmic pop-ins from Darkseid (Michael Ironside) and a King Shark breakaway adventure that turns into a teasing Aquaman parody. There's an invigorating energy powering through all the show's adventures, like everyone involved is wondering How the hell are we getting away with this???

Which brings up a freaky possibility: Maybe they won't. A third season hasn't been ordered yet. Friday's finale seems designed as a potential wrap-up. The future of DC Universe in general is unclear to me; the platform's biggest hit, Doom Patrol, is available on HBO Max, but Harley Quinn isn't. I hope this show doesn't get lost in the larger corporate shuffle of 2020's streampocalypse. This is a series that's just beginning to refine its specific brand of crazy. Give King Shark a chance! A-

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Harley Quinn

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