Why Everyone Should Watch Steven Universe – Hulu/Cartoon Network Op-Ed

There’s a reason why the people of the world believe in Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl… and Steven.

SUMMARY

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.

The cast page is huge by the end.

END SUMMARY

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.” 

And yes, it includes a song based on the title.

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.

Other lesson: Hugs are good.

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. 

Also, Stevonnie kicks a lot of butt.

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. 

This is way more adorable in context.

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. 

Also, Ted Leo and Aimee Mann are fusions. Their band is called “The Both.” I love that.

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.

You. Will. Cry.

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. 

Just know that Steven has a pet pink lion that can teleport.

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 TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Steven Universe Future (Episodes 10-20): The Destruction of the Hero Myth

Steven Universe decides to spend its final episodes essentially destroying the traditional hero narrative. 

SUMMARY (SPOILERS!!)

Steven Universe (Zach Callison) has succeeded in dismantling the Great Diamond Authority and has created Little Homeschool, a place where Gems can learn to adjust and integrate into humanity. He’s assisted by all of the Crystal Gems: Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, Peridot, Lapis Lazuli, and Bismuth (Estelle, Michaela Dietz, Deedee Magno Hall, Shelby Rabara, Jennifer Paz, Uzo Aduba). During the first ten episodes, we see him realize that there are a few enemies who will just hate him forever, that some gems resist the dismantling of the empire, and that his mother, prior to knowing our Pearl, had actually been physically abusive towards her former Pearl. After the class of Little Homeschool graduates, we also get hints that Steven is having trouble finding his place in the world now that he doesn’t have to defend against the Diamonds.

StevenUniverseFuture - 1Cast
I have two ships in this picture and I will never see them come in. 

In the last ten episodes, we find out how true that is. Steven doesn’t really have a clue what to do with his life now, and the lack of purpose is weighing on him. He thinks that his relationships will all fall to the wayside if they don’t have a shared goal, leading him to try and fill the void by proposing to his longtime girlfriend Connie (Grace Rolek). After she tells him that they’re too young (she handles it super well), he starts to find his powers growing out of control. He finds out that, even though his powers have given him superhuman regeneration and durability, his battle-filled childhood has created a lot of trauma. In response to finding this out, Steven starts to lose control of his powers even further which causes him to do increasingly worse things. Eventually, Steven is forced to accept that this time, he is the one that needs help.

END SUMMARY

I’ll do a Steven Universe retrospective soon about how this show went from a thing I absolutely couldn’t stand to one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, but today is mostly just going to be about Future. Steven Universe was always focused, as you would expect, on Steven, a boy hero who was trying to live up to the legacy that everyone said his mom left behind. Then, as the show went on, it was slowly revealed that his mother was not the perfect heroine that everyone thought, meaning that Steven was stuck trying to live up to an unrealistic ideal. While Rose Quartz/Pink Diamond had managed to become more heroic over time, she never made any of her numerous bad acts public, nor did she apologize for most of them (she left one person who loved her stranded in a garden for MILLENNIA). Instead, she pretended they didn’t happen, even if they caused suffering. Despite that, he held fast to his principles and ended up being a hero mostly through empathy and understanding rather than violence. 

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His mother’s temper gives her original Pearl flashbacks.

We’ve often seen the story of the child hero, but this is one of the few shows that ever actually addressed the realistic consequences of that. Steven was raised as the only human on a team of alien superheroes and constantly had insecurities about the nature of his powers. Additionally, he regularly fought monsters, evil gems, even the Diamonds themselves, often getting injured or watching his surrogate family hurt or even “poofed,” which is when a gem loses physical form. In this series, we see that there are two major impacts on his emotional development: First, he now responds to any pain as a threat to his life, a common trait of people who have been through traumatic experiences (as a cancer survivor, this is real and can be crippling at times). Second, he has a messiah complex… except that he already did the messiah part. He actually WAS the person who was destined to become the savior of the universe, but now he can’t find anything to do that fulfills him. It’s a much more accurate take on the aftermath of the hero’s journey than “they all lived happily ever after.” 

StevenUniverseFuture - 3Crying
I mean, a hero usually doesn’t ugly cry while cradling his lion.

I also like that the show doesn’t just say “this is going to suck” or “this will all work out.” Instead, at the end of the series, Steven is in therapy, he’s working on figuring out his own place in the new world, and the road may be bumpy. The only thing we know for sure is that Steven will always have his family and his friends with him, and that they’ll help him along when he needs it. That’s the best thing about this show, that it always ends up showing us that the real value is in trust and empathy, because that leads to creating friends out of enemies and friends are what we need most. 

StevenUniverseFuture - 4Cast
Most of the people in this photo tried to kill Steven at one point or another. Now, they save him.

This was a bold way to end a series, by basically undercutting the very trope that they had been playing into, but it’s exactly what I would expect from a franchise like Steven Universe. I cannot applaud it enough.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.