In this review, I’m going to full-on tackle (and hopefully answer) a question that I’m sure you have probably asked yourself. Situations in which you have asked yourself this question include:
- Attending an anime, game, or comic (none of which this series I’m going to be talking about actually is) convention in the last year.
- Checking out the Cartoon Network of Now to relive your childhood, but instead inevitably realizing you’ve made a horrible mistake and that you’re super old.
Don’t worry, I will cover that grenade. I will make that sacrifice for you.
Why the fudge pop is Steven Universe such a big deal?
Let me get this out of the way, and just say that if you want to avoid posts that are fraught with OTPs, spoilers, and ridiculous (yet deserved) epithets… then you came to the right place! I’m going to break this sonuvabitch down for you, free of charge. Approved for all audiences? Gather in close, friends, and get comfy.
Steven Universe follows a young boy named Steven, who lives with the Crystal Gems: Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, a trio of super-powered, gem-based beings. Steven is also half-gem, in addition to being half-human, and is trying to figure what that means for him and those around him. He gradually learns his guardians’ histories in bits and pieces, just like we do, and bumbles his way through serious situations, armed with a ukulele and a shield that works half the time, fighting creatures and vague threats in between enjoying life in Beach City.
If you think that appeals to a very niche audience, you are correct, but hear me out.
I started watching Steven Universe when it first aired, back in the simple time of 2013 when “What Does the Fox Say,” the “Harlem Shake,” and twerking all came out into the world to radically change our way of thinking. I know, I know, it’s easier to understand now how Steven Universe could have been overlooked in lieu of those super huge movements, but truth be told, simply Steven Universe just wasn’t that good in 2013.
Personally, most of what kept me watching through the first dozen episodes was the catchy theme song and knowledge of the show’s creator, Rebecca Sugar, and her experience songwriting and storyboarding for Adventure Time.
Surviving Act 1
My main complaint, and warning to viewers looking to start the series, is getting through the initial “Act 1” of the series. In this act, they first introduce the characters and a whole lot of information at once in order to get anywhere. This makes the bulk of Season 1 seem like filler, though with a second viewing hopefully you will appreciate them more. They build the world carefully around little details you’re not privy to until later in the show.
Like most good television series, Steven Universe’s weakest episodes are its firsts, and it only truly hits its stride about halfway through Season 1, around Episode 24.
Yeah, Episode 24. I realize how much of a turn-off that is.
Now imagine that feeling, multiplied by however many times you’ve cursed yourself for starting a show before you had a steady supply, and you’ll know how I felt in 2013.
When Steven Universe was released in November 2013, the earlier episodes were rationed out on air in leaky-faucet drips, coming out on an unpredictable schedule with months sometimes passing in between premieres. The animation and concept were original enough to get an early fan-base to keep Cartoon Network from pulling it, but it didn’t really have the drama or constant story and intrigue to really pull new viewers in. All it had was a try-hard attitude and people always mistaking it as an offshoot of Adventure Time.
But if you do get through Season 1’s slow burn, boy, are you in for a ride.
Why Steven Universe Rules
Without giving too much away, Steven Universe has a staggering amount of inclusive feats to its name. If you would go down the list of reasons why it’s great to be alive in 2017, you could check off all the boxes of: non-traditional gender roles, empowered female mains, a wide spectrum of gender-, racial-, and sexual-orientation representation, healthy relationship models, LGBTQ themes and parallels, discussion and addressing of anxiety in social situations, impressive animation and production quality, and a sassy black woman.
Not to mention the honest, catchy, and heartfelt music seamlessly performed by its characters, written by show creator Rebecca Sugar, and highlighted beautifully by an all-original soundtrack by Aivi and Surasshu (they were the team behind “Lonely Rolling Star” from Katamari and the Cryamore soundtrack). If you like music in the vein of video game BGM and chiptunes, with some decorative piano thrown in, check out their Soundcloud.
But if I really had to speak to the core of what Steven Universe is all about, I would have to break down our protagonist.
Steven is a happy-go-lucky, cheerful young boy — the epitome of seeing through rose-tinted glasses. He’s optimistic, a bit clumsy, and a bit too peppy in the beginning of the show. But Steven is important because he tries his hardest. He’s not born a superpowered hero, but is still learning about his powers and tries to live up to others’ expectations of him, which becomes a source of inspiration, anxiety, fear and understanding as his character develops. Because if there’s one thing Steven Universe the show excels at, it’s giving its characters unexpected depth.
I mean, look at this fabulous boy.
He’s not afraid to embrace different parts of himself, from the strange to non-traditional, and that’s a lot of what the show is about. Accepting who you, and the others around you, are.
This Show is Gorgeous
From a purely visual standpoint, the show is gorgeous. The backgrounds alone are excellent testimonials to vibrant, cohesive color palettes. The lighting is great, always indicative of the scene, expressing wonder, curiosity, dismay, creepiness, everything this show has to offer. The animation is smooth and flawlessly drawn by Koreans (not kidding: most of the in-between frames are outsourced to an animation studio in Korea to draw). The character designs are cute and memorable and the voice-acting helps it all along, especially when they get original musical numbers.
But if I were to throw all this reasoning out and boil it down to a more knee-jerk reaction, it would be that Steven Universe makes you feel…good. It’s a feel-good show about glittery, Sailor-Moon-inspired superheroes, capturing gem monsters like Pokemon, in a setting of eternal summer (it does snow and junk, but they live in a place literally called Beach City, and Steven’s footwear is always flip-flops, for pete’s sake).
Yes, this show delves into serious subject matter and more sinister themes past Season 1, which is responsible for most of the hype its cult following has pushed forward and sometimes down our throats, but it does so in a safe space. A bubble, if you will. It lays the groundwork for a fantastical, hopeful world similar to ours, builds characters that have existed long before we, the viewers, were introduced to it, and lures us in with kid-safe animations with rounded corners and colorful transformations and cuddly monsters before it delivers the emotional slappys. But at the core of it, it is about self-love and achieving that through relationships built between rivals, siblings, crushes, guardians, partners in crime, and best friends.
Sure, it’s not the first show to propagate self-love and harmony and all that stuff, but it’s one that does so phenomenally, giving us relatable characters, where you can point at them and say, “that reminds me of someone I know,” and one that shines a light on the stories that may not be told nearly often enough, like when you feel as if something’s wrong or defective with you, or when you want to be that person you think others want you to be, or when the warrior women you hang out with fuse into a giant woman.
So give it a try. You might like it, or you might not. The finale of Season 1 is usually what clinches it for whether the show is for someone or isn’t.
Me? I only realized I really loved this show partway through Season 2 with an episode called “Sworn to the Sword,” which comes in at Episode 58 of the series, not too impressive a number to get hooked into a show.
But if you stick with it, keep an open mind and take the show for what it is instead of what others have said it will be, because it obviously will be something different for everyone. I promise you’ll get something out of it. Just don’t let anyone force you into watching it, ‘cause you know what you like.
Do you watch Steven Universe? If not, are you now convinced to start watching? Let us know with a comment below!
Additional image credit: Cartoon Network Studios. Featured image art by Candace L.
Candace Lee is an illustrator, animator and comic artist, and graduate of Parsons The New School for Design in New York City. She has worked as a graphic design intern at AsianInNY, and is open to taking freelance illustration work. She specializes in character design, storyboarding and character-driven narrative, and currently is working on a hack-and-slash, dungeon crawling video game in her spare time.