HARLEY QUINN: THE COMPLETE FIRST AND SECOND SEASONS
Studio: Warner Archive, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Release Date: Blu-ray – February 16, 2021; DVD – Season One on June 10, 2020, Season Two on Feb. 16, 2021
Description: Harley Quinn (Kaley Cuoco) has finally broken things off once and for all with the Joker (Alan Tudyk) and attempts to make it on her own as the criminal Queenpin of Gotham City in this half-hour adult animated action-comedy series. With the help of Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) and a ragtag crew of DC castoffs, Harley tries to earn a seat at the biggest table in villainy: the Legion of Doom. Don’t worry – she’s got this. Or does she? In Season 2, Harley has defeated the Joker, and Gotham City is hers for the taking.what’s left of it, that is. Her celebration in the newly created chaos is cut short when Penguin, Bane, Mr. Freeze, The Riddler and Two-Face join forces to restore order in the criminal underworld. Calling themselves the Injustice League, they’re intent on keeping Harley and her crew from taking control as the top villains in Gotham.
By James Harvey
Fun, queer, gleefully absurd and a little more complex than you’d expect (or care to admit for some), Harley Quinn perfectly captures what has made the Harlequin of Crime one of DC Comics’ most popular characters, even if the series struggles on occasion to balance the smarts with the smut. Be it a series or movie, Harley Quinn is easily one of the most slapstick, dirtiest, craziest releases ever from WB Animation and DC Comics, but it’s also far more than just that. There’s genuine heart and emotion driving this series, and Harley Quinn and her merry crew of ne’r-do-wells make for usually great company during the ride, and now it’s available to experience on Blu-ray from Warner Archive!
The series kicks off with Harley Quinn finally breaking things off with the Joker for the last time, following the Clown Prince again leaving her behind to take the fall for their latest violent (and quite gruesome) caper. Determined to emancipate herself from the Joker’s shadow, Harley sets out to become the criminal Queenpin of Gotham City and to finally nab a spot in the Legion of Doom. She’s not alone in her empowering journey, joined primarily by Poison Ivy and her sentient houseplant Frank, along with a who’s who of some of DC Comics’ biggest bad guys. Naturally, things do not go as planned. Toss in a big twist at the end of the first season, which upends the series’ status quo going into season two, and what results is a quirky, wacky and fairly unpredictable jaunt through the world of Harley Quinn.
Pulling inspiration from everything – including Batman: The Animated Series and the Cupid of Crime’s assorted comic books, specifically from DC Comics’ The New 52 and Rebirth eras – and then tossing it in a blender, Harley Quinn gleefully revels in farcical, almost campy world it’s created for itself. The foul language is near constant, sometimes excessively so, and the violence is something akin to Looney Tunes, just usually accompanied with a plenty of blood. The body count in the first episode alone is in the low double digits, easy, and it gets much, much, much higher from there. And while this all seems absolutely out of control and chaotic (and rightfully so), Harley Quinn‘s title character serves as a suitable anchor throughout all the chaos. While she’s responsible for a fair chunk of it, granted, her character helps the viewer make sense of just how crackers the world she inhabits actually is.
Like the character she voices, Kaley Cuoco just breaks out as Harley Quinn. Not only does she sound perfect as this iteration of the fan-favorite character, but she also gives one heck of a performance. Just be warned, don’t expect her to sound like Arleen Sorkin (Batman: The Animated Series or Tara Strong (the Batman: Arkham series), Cuoco does her own unique take. She brings the right amount of unbridled life to the role, and easily commands as the series’ lead. By her side is Lake Bell, perfectly cast as Poison Ivy, Harley’s partner on this madcap journey. Ivy is such a crucial part to this series that maybe they should’ve considered calling it Harley & Ivy (more on that later). These two, who make an excellent comedic duo, lead an absolutely incredible cast, which includes Diedrich Bader back under the cowl as Batman, Chris Meloni as a crazed, obsessed Commissioner Gordon, and Alan Tudyk as The Joker and Clayface. And that’s honestly but a fraction of this series’ amazing and hilarious supporting cast. The series itself is led by creators Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker and Dean Lorey, all of whom worked together on the short-lived DC Comics-based NBC Sitcom Powerless. Every member of the show’s cast and crew seem to all be on the same page on what type of looney cartoon this is, and it shows (rest assured, in a good way).
And given the talent behind this show, it’s nice to see the series live up the expectations that come with. While we know of Harley’s ultimate goal to step out of the Joker’s spotlight and join the Legion of Doom on her own, it feels like anything can happen, and that’s the excitement you need a series like this to project. And despite a couple wobbly steps here and there at the start, Harley Quinn quickly invests us in her quest thanks to a great cast of supporting characters and storylines that, despite all the absurdity, actually resonate.
Continuing, Harley Quinn skillful use of its serial format – mixing relevant week-to-week progression with new subplots and B-stories that pop up along the way – keeps things from getting stale. Sure, not every new development or twists will land, as with any show, but Harley Quinn‘s strong momentum episode to episode effectively nullifies any duds. And not only that, and akin to the likes of Batman: The Brave and The Bold or Justice League Action, this series actually pulls deep from the DC Comics lore and lovingly embraces it, though not without putting it through the ringer once or twice. There’s also a host of reoccurring characters and gags that are ridiculously hilarious and the season one cliffhanger – effectively the half-way point for the story Harley Quinn is telling – is guaranteed to surprise the heck out of the audience.
One of the pleasantly surprising aspects of Harley Quinn, and this is by no means a spoiler, is how it’s so queer-friendly and inclusive. “Surprising” might be perhaps a little bit of an oversell, especially if you’re familiar with the character comic book history, so maybe “refreshing and welcoming” is a shade more accurate. It’s legitimately great to see the series creators not try to bury or push aside this aspect of Harley’s character, especially considering the struggles with representation for some minorities in pop culture even today. However, the show simply looks ahead and goes, even eventually doubling-down on it in equally hilarious (Themiscyra!) and heart-breaking moments (“I trust you with my life, but I don’t trust you with my heart.” is an absolutely devastating line). Plus, not only does Harley Quinn offer up maybe one of the best queer romances from the last few years – made all the more cooler (at least for me) because it involves the lead character in a DC Comics-based animated series – but it actually becomes the series’ main plot toward the end of the second season. It’s a pretty big moment for queer fans – to be the focus when LGBT characters are usually subjected to supporting roles and B and C storylines at best – it’s a feeling and a moment unlike anything else. Never listen or believe when someone tells you representation doesn’t matter. They’re idiots.
It’s also worth noting, for queer narratives, how there’s no ‘coming-out’ aspect to it here in Harley Quinn. It’s great to see that trope completely excised, given how much in entertainment it’s used as a crutch for queer narratives. It’s still valid, yes, but it’s nice to see progression beyond that. Here, queer characters and queer-oriented just exist and that’s it, and there’s something lovely and impactful about that. It’s refreshing and a surprisingly forward thinking move that, ideally, other entertainment programs realize and start also doing.
While a solid series overall, there are a few cracks here and there. While the over-the-top foul language and violence do actually elicit mostly laughs, it can get occasionally get excessive and grating. The same can be somewhat said about the violence, too, but the show’s target audience likely won’t have too much of an issue with it. Be prepared for lots of blood, people biting things, getting bludgeoned, be-headed, shot, set on fire and … well, the list goes on. But, honestly, it’s part of the draw, it works for the most part and it’s perfectly suited to Harley’s comically upside-down world is. There’s plenty of great gags, jokes and amazing performances, and, like the title character, Harley Quinn is smarter than it lets on, so prepared for some legitimate surprises.
Character designs in Harley Quinn are fantastic and are clearly inspired by DC Comics’ recent comic book output. Once she does away with the Batman: The Animated Series-created jester look, Harley dons a costume that’s ripped right from the character’s The New 52 rebooted look. It looks first-rate, though, as does the entire cast, thanks to the fantastic work by character designer Shane Glines (Justice League Action, Batman: The Animated Series) and animator Jennifer Coyle (DC Super Hero Girls, The Spectacular Spider-Man). The design for the frazzled, unhinged Commissioner Gordon is a personal favorite. For the rest of the cast, everyone is immediately identifiable with slight exaggerations or tweaks made to make them fit seamlessly into the show’s twistedly cartoonish style. Batman’s design, based on his armored-inspired look from The New 52, is fine but it’s a shade too busy, though.
The animation does right by the character designs, too, for the most part. Like the recent season of Young Justice: Outsiders, budgetary and resources constraints are pretty evident. This is understandable so given the tight budget of the former DC Universe streaming service. Movements aren’t as smooth as they should be, and big action pieces are usually jerky and choppy, or lack that ‘oomph.’ However, during the less action-intensive scenes, everything is more than serviceable. Characters are expressive, thanks to the stellar design work of Shane Glines and crew, and aren’t as stiff as they are during the bigger set-pieces. It’s a mixed bag to be sure, but honestly, the roughness of the animation from time to time actually ends up adding to the show’s charm and ‘underdog’ feeling.
Composer Jefferson Friedman’s score work for Harley Quinn deserves a nod, unquestionably. His varied work here serves as a great connective line for the series, tying together and grounding even the most other-worldly aspects of Quinn’s animated adventures. Friedman’s work on both seasons are available digitally from WaterTower Music.
An overall enjoyable experience, Harley Quinn is definitely well-worth picking up on your preferred home media format and thankfully, after a bit of a wait, Harley Quinn is finally arriving on Blu-ray. Available on a three-disc Blu-ray collection courtesy of Warner Archive, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s manufacture-on-demand home video label, Harley Quinn: The Complete First and Second Seasons is unquestionably the best way to experience this audacious animated adventure.
Looking first at the audio and video quality, without question the Blu-ray release of Harley Quinn is arguably the show’s best presentation to date, even taking into account the 4K streaming options available. The video is sharp and crystal clear, with colors appearing brighter and fuller and blacks deeper. There are a few instances of color banding, but nothing distracting (and even easy to miss). The episodes look great and are a definite improvement, even if it’s arguably minimal, from the streaming and digital versions available. In terms of audio, however, it’ll be hard to miss just how much better the series sounds here on Blu-ray. While dialogue and sound effects always sounded clear during its streaming and digital presentations, it lacked a sense of weight that this release brings in spades. You’ll hear every quick retort or overly violent confrontation because, well, the show has never sounded (or looked) better.
Moving on to bonus content and, unfortunately, there is none to be found. Given the ever-evolving home media landscape, and Warner Archive’s own products and offerings, this shouldn’t be a surprise, but by no means is that a strike against this release. Now, that’s not an excuse, just a point for context. Bonus content is always welcome, but as long as the main feature is intact, especially for a manufacture-on-demand release such as this, it’s never really expected or guaranteed.
Harley Quinn is a fun, hectic series littered with blood, gore and violence, but it’s also deceptively upbeat, positive and even life-affirming. Harley is making her way in the world after breaking free of The Joker, but this world just happens to be a chaotic mess (it is Gotham City, after all). The over-the-top language and violence will be deterrents for some potential viewers, and it’s easy to understand why. It does feel a little superfluous at times. However, those looking for some more adult-oriented animated adventures of their favorite Gotham City denizens will find plenty to like here. Cuoco, giving it her absolute all, leads an incredibly talented cast of actors, and the material they have to work with is pretty clever for the most part, save for the odd misstep. And if you want the best way to check out this wacky adventure, then Warner Archive’s Harley Quinn: The Complete First and Second Season Blu-ray release easily surpasses other viewing avenues. Harley Quinn is leading DC Comics on a journey into bold, progressive uncharted animated territory, and it’s a trip well-worth taking. Highly Recommended!
Please note Warner Archive provided a copy of this title to review. Harley Quinn: The Complete First and Second Seasons is available to own on Blu-ray, Digital and DVD from Warner Archive and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.
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