Kevin James, Gary Anthony Williams, and Sarah Stiles get thrown into a NASCAR pit.
Kevin Gibson (Kevin James) is the crew chief for Bobby Spencer (Bruce McGill) Racing, a low-ranked NASCAR team. He oversees chief mechanic Chuck Stubbs (Gary Anthony Williams), chief engineer Amir Lajani (Dan Ahdoot), and office manager Beth Paige (Sarah Stiles), as well as idiot driver Jake Martin (Freddie Stroma). The owner, Bobby, retires and puts his daughter, Catherine (Jillian Mueller), in charge of the program. An Ivy-leaguer, Catherine’s more sophisticated and by-the-books management quickly gets on the nerves of the more traditional pit crew, but when Jake and the crew start winning, it turns out that maybe this was just what they needed.
A while back, Netflix announced that it was using various computer algorithms to try and generate ideas for new shows. Some of those shows, like House of Cards, ended up being fairly successful. Some, like The Ranch, did fairly well with a targeted demographic, but didn’t receive critical acclaim. This show will probably end up in the latter category. It’s not particularly well written, nor is it very original, but it has just enough talents on camera to keep it going at just the right speed to be bingeable. It’s like a slow drip of morphine. You are not getting high off of it, you’re just getting numb for a little while.
This is not to say that it doesn’t have its moments. Kevin James, despite some of his career decisions in the past, does tend to make me laugh. Gary Anthony Williams, who I have always found to be pretty entertaining, makes a decent foil for many of the aspects of NASCAR that tend to give it a whitewashed reputation. The rest of the characters are mostly stock. Amir is the neurotic character who is often the butt of many of the jokes, Catherine is the elitist who tries to steamroll everything into her own image, Bobby is the old Southern boy, Jake is the moron who gets by on his looks and natural talent, and Beth is the only woman inside a boy’s club. I will admit that my natural fondness for Sarah Stiles, especially since she played Spinel in Steven Universe, made me enjoy the scenes with her character more than I might have otherwise, since I felt she was massively underwritten.
Overall, though, this show just felt so generic that it genuinely seemed to have been written by a computer designed to churn out mediocrity and inoffensive jokes. Skip it.
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.
After five seasons and a movie, Steven Universe gives us… reality?
Steven Universe (Zach Callison), along with the Crystal Gems Garnet (Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall), Lapis Lazuli (Jennifer Paz), Peridot (Shelby Rabara), and Bismuth (Uzo “Yes, Uzo Aduba” Aduba) finally dealt with the Great Diamond Authority (Patti LuPone, Lisa Hannigan, Christine Ebersole) and brought (relative) peace to the galaxy. In the movie two years later, the team managed to deal with Spinel (Sarah Stiles), a victim of Steven’s mother’s (Susan Egan) selfishness. They also founded an interstellar haven for gems that are now without purpose. And that’s where this series begins.
Steven and the Gems are now trying to run “Little Homeschool,” a facility for gems to learn how to deal with not being essentially slaves or soldiers under the Diamond Authority. The running of the school is tedious and often much less satisfying than fighting evil dictators was, and problems start to arise because of it.
In a lot of ways, this might be the best thing this series ever gave us, because it reminds us that there is no end to progress, it’s just a hill you keep rolling the ball up and hoping it doesn’t roll down. The Movie tried to address this idea, and did to an extent, but the show gets a lot more of the point across. There are messages about the fact that adulthood (which is what Steven has essentially hit) consists largely of responsibilities that are not the kind of fun challenges we see on television. Sure, when you fight a giant centipede there’s a chance you die, but after the fight’s over, it’s over. When you finish teaching a class of gems how to operate a bank account, then… you need to teach the next class. Unlike a genocidal war (like the Diamonds usually waged), there is no end to helping the world develop. The show is reminding us how hard doing “good” really is, something that it always tried to do in the past with empathy.
In addition to that very somber theme, the show deals with the reality of how trauma is usually associated with the kind of things Steven has dealt with, as well as the trauma of finding out that your parent was, in fact, not a great person. In this series, at least so far, Steven discovers that he may be inheriting some of his mother’s rage-based powers, which leads him to be afraid of expressing himself openly. We also see many of the characters fearing change, whether it be relationships ending or just evolving.
The only problem so far is that they haven’t really indicated what direction the mini-series is going to go, nor how many episodes it’s going to be, but I can say that I think there’s some interesting things set-up and I really hope they pay off.
The animated show that worked to defy standard hero tropes gets a movie that… does the same thing but with more singing and awesomeness. Best of all, you could watch it with no knowledge of the series and it would still work.
SUMMARY OF THE SERIES (Spoilers for the show)
Steven Universe (Zach Callison) is the first male member of a group of formerly all-female alien superheroes named the Crystal Gems. Unlike the other members Garnet (Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), and Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall), Steven is half-human through his father Greg Universe (Tom Scharpling) and his mother Rose Quartz (Susan Egan), formerly an alien dictator named Pink Diamond. He and his friends defended the world from the invasion of the other Diamonds (Patti Freakin’ LuPone, Lisa Hannigan, and Christine Ebersole) until finally Steven finally brokers peace through his powers of being super loving and tolerant. Yes, really, and it’s awesome.
It’s been 2 years since the end of the last season of the show and Steven has successfully helped dismantle the evil empire of the Diamond Authority, achieving a pretty much total happy ending. On cue, a new threat arrives in the form of Spinel (Sarah “I WAS KATE MONSTER” Stiles), a cartoonish and cruel gem whose plan is to destroy everyone, Gems and People alike.
First of all, I have to say that the show this is based on is amazing. It has one of the absolute slowest starts of any series, to the point that I actually recommend skipping the first half of season 1 (Start with “Mirror Gem”) if you want to try it, but after that it becomes so unique that it’s hard not to love it. Part of it is that the main character is a very deliberate subversion of the typical hero archetype.
Steven’s primary weapon is technically a shield, but really it’s his natural compassion towards others. Almost every major ally he gains over the series is a former enemy that he wins over through discourse, understanding, and love. There’s even a joke in the movie where all of the new Crystal Gems compare how long it took them to stop trying to kill Steven. It’s so fun to watch a character win through turning enemies into friends rather than just through martial force, even though some great shows have done it in the past (Goku in Dragonball and its progeny does it all the time… while also punching people). It also has some of the most distinct characters in terms of both design and also writing, from amazing supporting characters to villains with deep and complex motivations. Much like Adventure Time before it, the key is that the show seems so simple at the beginning that you hardly realize how much they’re setting up until suddenly you’re dealing with complex situations derived from well-crafted characters rather than plot contrivance. Additionally, EVERYONE has arcs, meaning that the entire world grows with the main characters, as opposed to just being static figures from which the main character derives events or, worse, Flanderized characters that become more simple over time rather than fully-formed characters.
This movie does have Steven going through an arc, but most of the other Gems’ arcs are essentially recapping their previous character developments. Since it’s a film and time is limited, that’s not inherently bad and it does allow for people who aren’t familiar with the show to get a good sample of what made it great. Additionally, in true Steven Universe fashion, Spinel gets an excellent character arc including an absolutely amazing backstory and resolution. There are a few seeming Dei Ex Machinae, but the fact that the film is presented as a Broadway musical kind of makes that seem appropriate, since most plays have that as part of the conclusion.
The music is fantastic, with at least 3 great earworms. When you consider how many great musicians collaborated on it (Aivi & Surasshu, Chance the Rapper, Gallant, James Fauntleroy, Macie Stewart, Mike Krol, Grant Henry (Stemage), Ted Leo, Jeff Liu, Jeff Ball, and Julian “Zorsy” Sanchez, as well as Estelle and Aimee Mann), as well as how many great singers were involved, that makes sense. The animation is fantastic and done perfectly with the songs. I particularly love that Spinel is animated to be a cartoon from the 1930s, a la “Steamboat Willie.” Sarah Stiles’ voice performance makes it even more apparent that she’s designed to be goofy comic relief that’s been tortured into being a villain. This makes her fight animations extremely interesting and creative, because while most of the characters in Steven Universe are relatively humanoid and move like they’re solid and normal, she moves completely erratically and elastically, which adds to her dangerousness. It also ends up making her feel more “obsolete,” something that plays well into her backstory.
The main thing I love about this movie is that it condenses one of the major themes of Steven Universe within the narrative: Change. Change is the most important thing to Steven, because he not only asks others to change, he shows them that it’s possible by changing himself. It’s routinely pointed out that this is perhaps his greatest ability, because other gems cannot change. They’re born in one form with one purpose and they will stay that way forever. The Crystal Gems are notable for the fact that they have all changed, with Pearl, a born servant, becoming independent, Garnet, two different gems combined, choosing to live as a fusion through the power of love, and Amethyst, a defective gem warrior who works to adapt to a life completely different than the war she was born to fight. However, Steven, as a human adolescent, is constantly changing and growing, going from nearly powerless at the beginning of the series to an incredibly powerful force, but he only ever uses that strength to try and endure until he can show people that empathy is the real way to end conflict. He routinely forgives people for trying to hurt him in order to show others that forgiveness is even possible and can really work. He turns the other cheek when people hit him and loves them anyway, but he mostly shows them that he can be better, so they can be better too. He also chooses to empathize with those who hurt him and understand why they’re hurting too rather than choosing to judge them for their actions. Basically, he’s a half-human half-effective-deity with magic powers that encourages people to love each other rather than judge each other and to try and live your best life rather than yelling at others for what they do that you don’t approve of and I can already feel the DMs in the inbox for this sentence. The film goes ahead and takes this to the next level by having Steven acknowledge that even the changes he’s undergone to this point cannot be enough, that change needs to continue forever because we can always be better than we were yesterday, and that understanding that is his greatest strength.
Overall, this was an amazing film and I recommend it for everyone with kids because it teaches you things that even a bunch of reptiles doing backflips and killing robots never could. It also has Steven essentially winning a fight with the absolutely devastating line “Only you can.” In context, it’s one of the most poignant and relevant things I’ve seen in film, so see the movie and get the context. Maybe you’ll find you’re changed by it. I’ll leave you with one of the last lines from the show:
I don’t need you to respect me, I respect me. I don’t need you to love me, I love me. But I want you to know you could know me, if you change your mind.