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Season 3 of 'Harley Quinn' is an example of how to keep superhero stories relevant

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

"Harley Quinn," the outrageous, adult-oriented animated show centered on the Joker's unpredictable ex-sidekick, debuts its third season on HBO Max today. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says it's one of the best and most overlooked versions of the DC Comics universe on film or TV.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Given how much some folks complain about bloated, overhyped superhero movies and TV shows, I'm always surprised more people don't pay attention to HBO Max's "Harley Quinn."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARLEY QUINN")

KALEY CUOCO: (As Harley Quinn) I don't want to do a big, evil plan, but do I want to help people? Maybe. I don't know. I just haven't really let myself think about it.

DEGGANS: That's Kaley Cuoco voicing Harley Quinn, a one-time supervillain sidekick at a crossroads. She's rejected her toxic former boyfriend, the Joker, to forge a new relationship with another supervillain, Poison Ivy. And as the third season starts, Ivy and Quinn are celebrating their relationship with a crime spree funded by playing a particular prank on Commissioner Gordon...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARLEY QUINN")

LAKE BELL: (As Poison Ivy) This is the IRS calling, sir. You have a $90,000 lien on your house.

CHRISTOPHER MELONI: (As Commissioner Gordon) How in the - is this about my ex-wife?

BELL: (As Poison Ivy) We're going to need to confirm your identity. What's your credit card number again?

MELONI: (As Commissioner Gordon) Oh, lifesaver. So any credit card?

CUOCO: (As Harley Quinn) Give me. Give me. Give me - the one with the highest limit.

DEGGANS: ...Culminating with the kidnapping of a certain celebrity.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARLEY QUINN")

BELL: (As Harley Quinn) Queen Elizabeth II. How did she get in here?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Queen Elizabeth II) She shoved me in a bag.

CUOCO: (As Harley Quinn) Happy two-week anniversary.

BELL: (As Poison Ivy) Oh, wow. Wow, Harls (ph).

CUOCO: (As Harley Quinn) What - you don't like it?

BELL: (As Poison Ivy) People are going to be, like, looking for her. I just took my bra off.

DEGGANS: HBO Max's "Harley Quinn" is an adult-oriented affair. It's filled with the kind of violence, cursing and sexual references that also powered the live-action "Suicide Squad" and "Birds Of Prey" movies that popularized the Harley Quinn character in the first place. But there's also lots of sly satire poking at superhero tropes like a modernized version of the '60s-era Batman series with Adam West in tights slinging a legion of bad puns. Consider this moment when Harley and Ivy are fighting a C-list Canadian terrorist named Plastique.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARLEY QUINN")

KARI WAHLGREN: (As Plastique) Chirp away, hosers. I almost blew up a super-soldier lab.

BELL: (As Poison Ivy) Oh, is that before or after you stole Carmen Sandiego's coat? God, you know, I meant that as an insult, but I do love her.

DEGGANS: There's even a shade reserved for side characters. For example, when Batman's former sidekick Nightwing shows up in the Batcave, the Caped Crusader has a question about his former ward's voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARLEY QUINN")

DIEDRICH BADER: (As Batman) What's with your voice?

HARVEY GUILLEN: (As Nightwing) What are you talking about?

BADER: (As Batman) It's a bit overly serious.

GUILLEN: (As Nightwing) I think it's an appropriate amount of serious.

DEGGANS: And when bad guy Bane tries to buy some explosives to take out Harley, he discovers his bank accounts have been frozen, which requires going over his recent charges with a curiously nonplussed bank teller.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARLEY QUINN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) So there's, like, $20 at Big Belly Burger at 8 a.m.

JAMES ADOMIAN: (As Bane) I like their breakfast sandwich as much as the next guy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Another $30 at Big Belly Burger at 9 a.m.

ADOMIAN: (As Bane) Well, perhaps more than the next guy. There's nothing suspicious about these activities.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The wedding dress worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in the "Sex And The City" movie. Are you depressed?

ADOMIAN: (As Bane) No.

DEGGANS: Newsflash - Bane is kind of depressed, as he reveals in a very "Sex And The City"-style personal monologue moments later. What makes all of this work is the story at the heart of the series, the journey of a woman moving from life as a powerful man's unappreciated enabler to someone who defines herself outside the bounds of any relationship. That's the secret sauce that makes this third season of "Harley Quinn" better than most TV shows and films about flying people punching up bad guys. It's a potent example of how to keep these stories relevant amid a glut of superhero stories, never losing sight of the bizarre absurdities or human drama at the core of it all. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFFERSON FRIEDMAN'S "PARTY'S OVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.