There’s a reason why the people of the world believe in Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl… and Steven.
Welcome to Beach City, Delmarva (yes, that’s a state here). It’s a quiet seaside town, except for all of the monster attacks. Fortunately, it has long been guarded over by the Crystal Gems, a group of sentient magical alien gemstones in human form. The team consists of leader Garnet (Estelle), wild child Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), and strategist Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall). At the beginning of the series, they are raising their future fourth teammate, Steven Universe (Zach Callison), the son of their former leader Rose Quartz (Susan Egan) and her human lover Greg Universe (Tom Scharpling). Steven starts to inherit his mother’s powers when he’s 13, leading him to want to take a more active role in the team. As his abilities grow, however, so too do the threats against humanity, ranging from the cracked gem Lapis Lazuli (Jennifer Paz) to the agents of the Crystal Gem Homeworld’s Great Diamond Authority, Peridot (Shelby Rabara) and Jasper (Kimberly Brooks), to the Diamonds themselves, Yellow Diamond (Patti LuPone), Blue Diamond (Lisa Hannigan), and White Diamond (Christine Ebersole). Fortunately, Steven’s natural empathy makes him really good at gaining allies. He also regularly interacts with his best friend Connie Maheswaran (Grace Rolek) and local donut sellers Lars and Sadie (Matthew Moy and Kate Micucci). Also, they’re later joined by former Crystal Gem Bismuth (Uzo Aduba). After the show ends, Steven deals with the threat of the mad gem Spinel (Sarah Stiles), and then an existential crisis.
When I talked about Adventure Time, I said that the show was the ultimate coming-of-age story because it represents a shift from a childish world to a more complex and, despite the setting, a more realistic adult one. Steven Universe has a similar progression, but the world it progresses towards is more of an ideal than a reality. Whereas Finn in Adventure Time sometimes averted conflict through empathy, he still often just chooses the “violent” solution, because it’s expeditious and works on people who will not listen to reason. Steven Universe, on the other hand, starts off with the gems often choosing the more direct solution of beating the crap out of monsters, but as the show progresses and Steven takes on a greater role, conflicts are increasingly resolved through a combination of endurance and empathy. No matter how resolved the enemy is, Steven can still find a way to connect with them and turn them to his side. Heck, the series finale is called “Change Your Mind.”
While the show was filled with bold choices (more on that in a minute), one of the most profound was giving Steven powers that are traditionally not associated with a male superhero. His abilities are almost exclusively related to defense (a shield and a bubble), healing, and empathy through astral projection or empathetic telepathy. While he does eventually learn how to fight, for most of the show he leaves that up to the other Crystal Gems, whose powers manifest as weapons. Moreover, when he does finally start flinging his shield or throwing punches, he still always does so with non-lethal intent. The show ends up proving him right in doing so because defeating an enemy gives Steven a chance to speak with them again as an equal, rather than an opportunity to humiliate them. When Steven talks to enemies, he’s really trying to find the source of their anger and to help them with it, something that is way outside of the typical hero role. This ultimately allows Steven to get most of his enemies onto his side, meaning that he’s turned a weakness into his strength. It’s a message that so many people should heed: Defeating an enemy will likely breed more enemies, making a friend from an enemy won’t.
As to the other bold choices the show made, there are a lot of them.
First, every body type is represented in this show and, moreover, every body type is presented as attractive. The main characters are a perfect example: Pearl is extremely thin and angular, Amethyst is short and callipygian, Garnet is taller, more muscular, and has an hourglass figure. More than that, Steven and Connie frequently “fuse,” combining into a non-binary character called Stevonnie (AJ Michalka), who is considered to be beautiful by men and women alike.
Second, this show probably pulled the greatest move in getting an LGBT relationship into the series without causing a major “moral panic” by revealing that Garnet is, in fact, a fusion of two other gems, Ruby (Charlyne Yi) and Sapphire (Erica Luttrell). Garnet’s existence is powered by the love of these two characters, meaning that Garnet literally IS a lesbian relationship (and eventually a marriage). Pearl, too, is shown being attracted not only to other female gems, but also to human women. Rose Quartz is revealed to have been bisexual and, eventually, the show had the first non-binary character played by a non-binary actor in Shep (Indya Moore) in a kids show. In short, this show has a ton of LGBTQ+ representation, breaking all sorts of barriers.
Third, the series never shied away from a lot of musical experimentation. A clever storytelling supplement is that each of the main characters has an instrument associated with their music (Pearl: Piano, Garnet: Synth Bass, Amethyst: Drums, Steven: Chiptune Tones), as do almost all of the recurring characters, but each of their themes changes and combines when they fuse. For example, when Pearl and Amethyst fuse to become Opal (Aimee Mann), Amethyst’s drums become more ordered and Pearl’s piano more experimental. Moreover, the show itself has a heavy musical influence that increases as the show goes on, growing from relatively simple tunes on the ukulele and guitar to showtunes to some ridiculously complex works by Estelle or Chance the Rapper towards the end. Steven Universe: The Movie is a flat-out musical and I loved all of the numbers.
Lastly, the final story arc of this show isn’t about fighting some intergalactic war or a typical escalation of villain a la Dragonball Z or Supernatural. Instead, this show ends on an introspective journey, analyzing the hero’s role after the show ends and how a person with traumatic experiences and a self-sacrificing nature adjusts to a more normal life. Showing that may be one of the most impressive and original things in a show filled with impressive and original things.
Now, similar to my statement about Adventure Time, I will caution anyone wanting to give this show a try that it is a pure kids show at the beginning. In fact, I genuinely advise against watching the beginning of the series unless you have small children. If you just want to get into the show, here’s my recommendation: Skip the first half of the first season to “Mirror Gem/Ocean Gem.” Watch those two episodes, then skip to “Lion 3: Straight to Video” and go from there. I’ve just reduced the first season from 52 episodes to 21, and you will thank me for it.
I loved this show, which is all the more impressive because when I watched the premiere, I assumed it was a waste of time. I can’t emphasize how much I didn’t enjoy the beginning of this series, to the point that I didn’t start watching it again until someone convinced me to give it another try a few years later. Please, give this show a try, particularly if you have kids. You may learn some things about yourself.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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