Making the villain the star has always been a fun way to invert a story and turn an audience's rooting interest against itself. Cheering for victory only to realize the story's champion is horrible prompts some delicious introspection, some uncomfortable squirming. Oftentimes, this structure pits a villain against a seemingly worse monster, thus giving us a lesser-of-two-evils choice.
Harley Quinn, an animated show on HBO Max, throws out the grim table setting and revels in the ridiculousness of the DC Universe. Batman, Superman, and all their crazed foes are there, complete with exceptionally bonkers entries like Calendar Man and Darkseid's extra-dimensional eccentricities. Every 20-30 minute episode is filled with winks, nods, and outright loving mockery of the comics history spun into such insanity.
If the show, though, spent its time solely on highlighting oddball, minor villain hijinks, you'd lose interest after a couple episodes. Harley Quinn, like most competent cartoons aimed at adults, does what a good show ought to: it makes you care about the characters.
Ever a slapstick sidekick to the Joker, the titular Harley Quinn has layers here. She's still a maniac much of the time, in a gleeful way that presents her less as sinister force and more a natural cause, like a hurricane. Early on, the series spends its plot time on Harley's destructive relationship with the Joker, presenting and commenting on rather serious abusive tendencies, albeit with machine guns, explosions, and copious dead goons as window dressing.
This opening salvo establishes the show's modus operandi, telling you that Harley Quinn isn't going to be a villain-of-the-week series but, instead, an ongoing narrative exploring humanity in an extreme world so often devoid of it. You might turn in to watch the Legion of Doom prank Bane endlessly, or to see what a party weekend might look like at Wonder Woman's home isle, but peek beneath the surface, and you'll get a deeper, engaging tale of recovery and growth.
Yes, there's monsters, there's explosions, there's murderous fairy tales and a man-shark as a major character. But there's so much damn heart in this show that I found myself grinning every time a new episode started up. If you're looking for a DC Deadpool, only animated and with more kites, then you owe it to yourself to give Harley Quinn a shot.