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The Harley Quinn Valentine’s Special Is the Dirtiest Superhero Show on TV

The raunchy jokes are part of the radical queer representation.
  • Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn (Photo: HBO Max)
    Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn (Photo: HBO Max)

    In the last few years, queer love on TV has become not only more visible, but also more varied than ever before. Without even looking very hard, audiences can enjoy queer relationships that are tender (Heartstopper), tragic (Episode 3 of The Last Of Us), or so deeply dysfunctional that they involve international murder plots (Killing Eve). However, even when they include sex scenes, these romances are almost never very crass. That’s why HBO Max’s Harley Quinn: A Very Problematic Valentine’s Day Special feels so radical, even with a running time of just 45 minutes. More than any queer TV show in recent memory, it revels in the shocking, hilarious pleasure of total raunch.

    This naughty little special is spun off from Harley Quinn, HBO Max’s popular animated series about the DC Comics anti-hero. Among its many pleasures, that show is the first adaptation to explicitly state that Harley Quinn (Kaley Cuoco) and Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) are a couple, offering slow-burn romantic comedy stuffed to the brim with R-rated jokes about Mr. Freeze's ice vaginas, Harley's "holes," and Batman's proclivities towards bats. A Very Problematic Valentine's Day Special takes both the innuendo and the romance to the next level, focusing the show’s rude comedy on Harley’s determination to plan "the perfect Valentine's Day" for her green goddess.

    This leads to anarchic comedy — the special is more akin to a John Waters movie than anything in the typical superhero genre — that underlines how queerness is inherently transgressive. After all, Harley and Ivy literally enact the revolutionary slogan “be gay, do crime,” and there’s a certain thrill in watching them break the law for the sake of their love lives. Harley commits multiple felonies, including setting up an evil capitalist for her lover to murder, and yet we always root for them because the writing makes us want the best for the duo. Despite their superpowers, they struggle relatably with commitment. They've both been in terrible relationships but are trying to do better, and they're unabashed in their love for each other. That adds a cathartic and compassionate element to the wish fulfillment fantasy that already comes with superhero stories.

    Just as importantly, the show is never afraid to show the physical side of their relationship. There's a prolonged and celebratory oral sex sequence that sets off the final conflict, and it leads to Harley giving Ivy a magically enhanced orgasm so powerful that it almost destroys Gotham. This contradicts the sanitized representations of queer romance that corporate superhero stories usually stick to, when they depict queerness at all. Queerness exists on a spectrum, and real representation means depicting all aspects of it. That absolutely includes ridiculously raunchy sex and gross-out jokes that center on, but don't mock, queer characters.

    That said, the story also makes room for gentler emotions. As Harley obsessively plans Valentine's Day, she ignores what Ivy wants at every step. She is still working through her trauma from years with the Joker, and working too hard to please is one of the patterns she needs to break. So instead of letting Ivy have her dream night in, Harley plans an extravagant crime-fighting frenzy complete with evil mobsters, oil barons, and explosions. While the special is here to titillate and entertain with its depiction of superhero sex, Harley and Ivy's attempt to build a healthy relationship is always at the core of what makes it work.

    Complementing Harley and Ivy’s adventure, the show is interspersed with a variety of silly, straight-to-camera confessionals by some of DC's most famous heroes and villains. In a nice nod to showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker's other big hit, Abbott Elementary, we get Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams voicing Hawkgirl and Hawkman. The pair share their comically awful love story, replete with multiple murders, time travel, and weird magic. In another charming moment, Superman (James Wolk) and Lois Lane (Natalie Morales) make light of the unlikeliness of their pairing. And Harley and Ivy even have some fun complaining about the format being a part of the episode at all. It's a nice meta-touch that highlights another of the show's biggest strengths: playing with the expectations and structure of television and superhero stories.

    Other cameos enhance the raunchiness. Clayface (Alan Tudyk) indulges in some cheeky self love after getting split in two. The deepcut DC demon Etrigan (John Stamos) shows up in a brief but key role as the purveyor of sexual spells which end up causing chaos in the streets of Gotham. And one of the series's most popular rogues appears in the episode's funniest and rudest subplot. After getting accidentally roped into a BDSM session, Bane (James Adomian) attempts to please an unexpected new lover with a growth spell that goes wrong, turning him into a rampaging horny giant. This setup delivers a very fun recurring sight gag as the show has to find numerous large objects around Gotham City to keep Bane modest. Speaking of Bane, he’s also a great representation of the way queerness is inherent to the show. The giant-sized villain's horny rampage through the city isn't defined by a single gender. Everyone gets to be queer and randy in this universe.

    While this is a show stacked with an immense amount of comic book references, it still feels impressively accessible. It's a rom-com drenched in sweat and swears that can likely be enjoyed just as easily — and as much — by someone who's never watched the series. Even viewers who aren’t fans of superheroes or animation can enjoy some revolutionary queer politics wrapped in hilariously horny humor.

    Harley Quinn: A Very Problematic Valentine's Day Special premieres Feb. 9 on HBO Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Rosie Knight is an award-winning journalist and author who writes about TV, Films, and comic books. You can hear her each week as she co-hosts Crooked Media's flagship pop-culture podcast X-Ray Vision. 

    TOPICS: Harley Quinn, HBO Max, Alan Tudyk, Kaley Cuoco, Lake Bell