‘Harley Quinn’ Gifts Us a Beautifully Twisted Valentine’s Day Special
You may have heard that both HBO Max and DC’s film and television properties are in a state of major turmoil. Projects are being canceled even after they’ve completed production, other series are being dropped from the streamer altogether — the proper term for this is, I believe, “Zaslaving” — fictional universes are being revamped, and on and on. It’s a mess, though perhaps James Gunn can entangle the DC end of things.
Somehow, though, Harley Quinn has survived unscathed through all this mess. The animated series outlasted the streaming service on which it began(*) and multiple regime changes at whatever we’re calling Warner Bros. these days. While other DC shows greenlit around the same time have since been canceled (along with what seems like the inevitable demise of the remaining Arrow-verse series over on what’s left of the CW), Harley not only has a fourth season on the way, but a Cheers-esque spinoff where Kite Man takes over a supervillain bar in Gotham City. Plus, there’s a Valentine’s Day special coming on Feb. 9.
(*) Without looking it up, can you name that service? We’ll have the answer for you a few paragraphs from now!
How has an adults-only cartoon, that takes place in its own continuity, and could not be filthier or more blasphemous regarding these iconic characters — aka monstrously-lucrative, intensely-guarded pieces of corporate IP — been able to rise above the DC/Warner maelstrom? Well, it certainly helps that the show is, as Gunn (who cameo’ed in several Harley Season Three episodes) recently described it, fantastic.
Created by Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker(*), and Dean Lorey, Harley Quinn began in 2019(**) by having its chaotic title character (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) break free of toxic boyfriend the Joker (Alan Tudyk). Determined to prove she could be a villain in her own right, she recruited a colorful group of overqualified sidekicks — including scenery-chewing shapeshifter Clayface (Tudyk again), softspoken King Shark (Ron Funches), and Harley’s best friend Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), took on more established bad guys, and showed an utter lack of respect at every turn for Batman (Diedrich Bader), Superman (James Wolk), and the rest of the Justice League.
(*) Halpern and Schumacker are also executive producers on ABC’s Abbott Elementary, and bring Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams in to cameo in the Valentine’s special as Hawkman and Hawkgirl.
(**) Our trivia answer: Harley Quinn debuted on the DC Universe streaming service, which no one involved seem to recognize would become redundant the moment its corporate parent launched its own service.
On the one hand, Harley Quinn can be so irreverent and dirty as to make the Deadpool movies seem tame. And the creative possibilities of animation allows the show to display levels of gore that would be stomach-churningly unwatchable in live-action. Yet on the other hand, it is a stealthily great character study of Harley and the many self-destructive traits she grappled with long before she met the Joker. And over time it developed into a sincere and at times incredibly sweet romance between Harley and Ivy. These two halves feel even more mismatched in some ways than the silly and tragic sides of something like BoJack Horseman, but it all makes a skewed kind of sense together.
That ability to be both things at once is very much on display in what is officially titled Harley Quinn: A Very Problematic Valentine’s Day Special. While some supporting players like King Shark and Batman essentially get the holiday off, the special focuses on three awkward romantic quests. Harley wants to give Ivy the greatest Valentine’s Day ever, and seems pathologically unable to settle for Ivy considering it just “great.” Clayface gets catfished, and the only person or thing he can find to appreciate his loneliness is his own temporarily separated lower half, which speaks to him through a butt crack shaped like a vertical mouth with crooked teeth. (See comment in above paragraph re: some things that work much better in two dimensions than three.) And poor Bane (James Adomian) — simultaneously the show’s funniest and most tragic character — struggles to get over his own various hangups (he is a stickler for grammar!) to find love on the apps.
What follows is at times graphic, at times pathetic, and at times downright silly — often all at the same time. Much fun, for instance, is had from the show strategically hiding the now enormous penis of a character who bursts out of his clothes after growing to skyscraper size. Yet for all the characters who get shot, decapitated, stabbed, crushed or threatened by the aforementioned giant dong, there are also some real emotions in there. Well, most of those are confined to the Harley/Ivy A-story, but the special manages to find sympathy even for the absurd, hammy Clayface and the self-doubting and socially awkward Bane.
Toward the end of the show — which somehow ropes in Ted Lasso Emmy winner Brett Goldstein as himself — Ivy looks at all that has happened and declares, “I will never see anything stupider in my life.” She is not wrong. But Harley Quinn in all its forms remains incredibly smart about how stupid its world is, and manages to take certain elements just seriously enough to keep any of it from feeling too crass.
Ivy makes it clear throughout that she would be happy to just spend the night cuddling with Harley and finding something good on television to watch. It’s hard to imagine a more entertaining — and/or more sexually creative — TV show for mid-February than Harley Quinn: A Very Problematic Valentine’s Day Special.
The special begins streaming February 9 on HBO Max.