Generational shifts are a funny thing when it comes to entertainment. If you keep up with current trends it’s often possible to see the influences of things you liked as a kid in shows and movies coming out now.
Case in point: I was the perfect age to get swept up in that heady time during the late 90s and the first half of the 00s where it seemed as if anime was going to take over the world. I didn’t go on to make cartoons of my own, but lots of other people my age did, and some of them are now in high-level showrunner positions. Rebecca Sugar rose to prominence largely for creating Adventure Time, a series that gained recognition among older audiences initially due to its many references and call backs to videogames from an earlier time period.
I didn’t watch Adventure Time, as nerdy winking shout-outs to SNES era games doesn’t interest me, but I was intrigued when I heard that Sugar’s follow-up, Steven Universe, borrowed heavily from the anime series that were on TV at the beginning of my fandom. And it turns out that just as Adventure Time apparently offers far more than nostalgic references, so too does Steven Universe use the nerd-baiting as an invitation to enter an entertaining and heartfelt world full of endearing characters.
The titular Steven is a goofy ten year old boy with a very strange family setup: for the last several years he’s been raised by a trio of alien beings known as Gems, entrusted to their care by his van-dwelling amateur rock star Dad due to the fact that he’s the product of a Gem/human union and may have inherited some of his late mother’s magical abilities. As the story begins Steven is taking the first steps toward activating the rose-quartz gemstone in his bellybutton and joining his three guardians on their missions to protect Earth from the dangerous beings that seem to pop up with alarming regularity. This is a somewhat dangerous job, but if they all work together they can surely handle it– they are, after all, the Crystal Gems, who always save the day (and if you think they can’t you’re mistaken, as they’ll always find a way).
Except it’s not quite that simple. There’s a whole lot that Steven isn’t being told about the Crystal Gems and why they’re on Earth, and those mysteries are about to become relevant in a very pressing manner. Something from the Gems’ long-buried past is about a resurface in a way that could threaten everyone and everything Steven cares about. Can our hero keep it together and hoard enough delicious Cookie Kat to rise to the challenge?
Reviewing Steven Universe presents a conundrum in that I can’t tell you about most of the really cool plots turns because they’re spoilers and it’s better to go in cold. What I can say is that this show starts out as goofy episodic entertainment, then organically and (mostly) effortlessly transitions into an ongoing serialized plot without losing the humour and warmth that made it great to start with.
The first few episodes set the tone: Steven’s existence is largely carefree and fun-filled, as he whiles away the days interacting with the other three Crystal Gems, each of whom takes on a different familial aspect. Mature, sensible (and often uptight) Pearl wants to be a mother figure but often comes off as an aunt who can’t quite get him to listen to her; Amethyst is the cool older sister who’s great for a laugh but not the best role model in the world; Garnet is the leader and the closest thing Steven has to a true parent, even if her aloofness can sometimes make her emotionally distant; and behind it all is the memory of Rose Quartz, who brought the other three together and who Steven struggles to understand from the fond recollections that he’s grown up hearing about.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on there, it’s because there is. In an era where far too many kid’s shows are still afraid to make their characters anything more than surface-level stereotypes, Steven Universe imbues its central players with a lot of depth that’s communicated easily to the audience. The dynamics I talked about above are very rarely explicitly stated or called attention to, the show trusting that its audience will notice how Steven blinks away tears whenever an unexpected photo or memento of his mother pops up or the way the other two Gems defer to Garnet’s decisions and connect the dots on their own.
The other inhabitants of Steven’s seaside resort-town home frequently come into play, and often get fleshed out in their own episodes in a way that reminds me of The Simpsons (which has been acknowledged as a major influence). The most important member of the extended cast is Connie, Steven’s first human friend and his first crush. That the two are into each other is made very obvious from near the beginning of the season, but the show resists giving them the usual hackneyed childhood puppy-love dynamic that a lot of kid’s entertainment falls into; instead their friendship grows in an organic way, such that if a serious relationship materialized at some point down the road it would be built on a believable and solid foundation and not the idea that girls and boys will inherently magnetize once placed in close enough narrative proximity.
In fact healthy, positive relationships seems to be one of the show’s main themes. A climactic moment at the end of the season contrasts a loving union between two gems with the controlling, domineering behavior of one of the villains, the message seeming to be that people who show each other mutual respect and understanding are happier, healthier, and greater able to kick hostile aliens in the damn face. It’s essentially the hackneyed Power Of Love message, but reformatted into something that’s actually useful in real life.
Speaking of positive messages, this is a capital-P progressive show on many fronts, in a way that puts most adult entertainment to shame. Issues like gender and sexuality are handled deftly and easily, with absolutely zero hand-wringing about whether certain subjects are suitable for children. It would take a full Talking Forever About post to cover everything (hey, not a bad idea) but to give one example: the Gems are apparently meant to be genderless, but this is never stated in-show and they seem to universally present as female, which means that any non-platonic relationship between them is by default read as same-sex. And there’s no Legend of Korra-style vague end of series hand-holding going on, it’s pretty damn obvious who’s into who romantically. As far as I know there’s yet to be anything as explicitly obvious as a kiss shown on screen, but then there’s also been nothing like that between any of the other characters either.
I also love the show’s rejection of traditional masculinity. Steven, our hero, is a big sentimental ball of mushiness who cries and shows his feelings easily, and yet he’s never shamed for it or portrayed as weak. The powers he inherited from his mother heavily use the colour pink and are themed around roses, and yet it’s still cool as hell when he learns to use a new skill or participates in combat. His role on the team skews toward the traditionally feminine; he’s the protector and the nurturer even more than his mother was. And it’s never even commented on.
(In case it seems as if the series is just juggling stereotypical gender roles around: there is at least one character who seems to have been designed to blow a gigantic hole in the gender binary, but they’re a spoiler so I won’t say anything more)
SU’s plot is heading in a direction that could fairly accurately be described as “epic”, and the characters are developing in ever more deep and interesting directions– I particularly like how by the end of the season Steven has noticeably grown from a hyperactive little boy to an older child grappling with more complex emotions and situations. But what initially grabbed me about this show is the fact that it’s really god damn funny. The humour is pitched at a level that audiences of all ages can appreciate, like a Pixar movie or The Simpsons at its best, and the jokes come at a near-constant pace apart from the few moments where the show gets entirely serious.
The transition from episodic humour to a more involved on-going plot is handled mostly very elegantly, building on smart call-backs to seemingly inconsequential earlier scenes to methodically create the impression that much larger events are occurring outside of Steven’s direct experience, such that by the time the curtain is pulled back and we’re told what’s actually going on the reveal feels entirely organic.
My only criticism is that the show at times seems to struggle to fit the more plot-heavy episodes into the short 11-minute runtime, leading to some choppy pacing and dramatic scenes that needed a bit more time to breathe. This largely abates after a few episodes in the middle of the season, but it’s rocky until things stabilize.
I spend most of my time on this blog criticising media. I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of, but at the same time it’s always nice to talk about something I unreservedly love. Steven Universe is the kind of entertainment that feels like a big cosy beanbag, something to settle into and lose yourself in. It’s funny, it looks great, watching the characters interact is like spending time with a group of close friends… apart from the minor issue I highlighted above, the show is damn near close to perfect. If you don’t like American animation in general it’s not going to convert you, but everyone else should check it out at their earliest convenience.