Note: This article contains minimal spoilers, but read at your own risk!
Steven Universe is a Cartoon Network program that was created by Rebecca Sugar, and it’s amaze-balls. It first aired in November 2013, and is now on its second season. The show has been gaining some serious traction in its rapidly growing fan-base, and has received the green light for a third season. Fun Fact: Rebecca Sugar, if you did not know, is a former storyboard artist, composer, and writer for the other best cartoon on the network, Adventure Time. Sugar’s style creates a sense of youthful optimism, and Steven Universe definitely channels that.
The series takes place in the fictional town of Beach City, which is protected from various types of destruction by a magical trio of women warriors called the Crystal Gems. The titular character, Steven Universe, is a bubbly, kindhearted, young boy whose mother was one of the Crystal Gems. We learn early in the show that Steven’s mother (Rose Quartz) had to relinquish her corporeal form in order to birth Steven, and she passed her magical gem on to him, so he can take her place and help defend the Earth.
As a result of his mother’s sacrifice, the three surviving Crystal Gems (Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl) raise Steven with some assistance from his loving human father (Greg Universe). The shows follows Steven as he trains to use his Crystal Gem powers, tries to teach his fellow Gems how to relate with the humans they have sworn to protect, and seeks to learn more about the mother he never met. There are fun interactions between the aloof, removed Crystal Gems and the residents of Beach City who must deal with the aftermath of the Gems’ super power-fueled battles, giving the story-world some great depth and realism.
As you can see, there are a ton of story lines and characters for the show to explore. In all honesty, it took me two or three episodes to feel fully engrossed in the show as it takes its sweet time to explore the characters’ personalities before really pursuing what feels like a “main story” arc. Much of the first season deals with a Steven who unable to use his powers consistently/properly, who gets underfoot of the Gems while trying to help on missions, bungles the situation, and then solves it for the team. When Steven isn’t on missions with the Gems, he is usually off causing trouble for his fellow Beach City residents and friends. It’s all really fun, and some of those “filler” episodes are among my favorites (I will never, ever get tired of watching “Tiger Millionaire”).
The real juicy pieces of story I wanted to get to came slowly: what exactly happened with Steven’s mother? What are the Crystal Gems and where did they come from; why are they dedicated to saving the Earth? When will Steven learn to fully use his gem powers?! Steven Universe’s writers are brilliant at giving us viewers the smallest taste of an answer to these questions, and then letting us stew over theories and thoughts for weeks before getting another piece (or an actual answer, if we are lucky!). In truth, I feel like the real meaty episodes of the show did not begin until around the thirteenth episode, and they were rather spread out after that again until the end of the season, when things really ramped up… though they seem to have cooled again, at least for the time being.
However, though I wish the story moved a little faster, I wouldn’t actually change a thing given the chance: I have yet to be disappointed by a single episode. Sure, some are better than others, but there is not an episode that has aired I would not rewatch given the opportunity. The way the show has progressed has just made me feel even more invested in the story and characters as things have begun to heat up and start really moving along. Having the background details given so slowly and carefully has made for a far more enjoyable viewing experience than I initially expected.
And the songs! If you are an Adventure Time fan like me, you are very familiar with Rebecca Sugar’s ability to write fantastically catchy, quirky tunes. I read at some point that Sugar and her team are very cautious about the use of songs they put into Steven Universe, trying to place them only where it feels natural for a song to be instead of jamming them in there for sake of having a song. I think they’ve pulled that intention off flawlessly, as Steven Universe has tunes that will be stuck in your head for days, in the best way possible.
The quality of the writing is further shown in that characters of Steven Universe are up to the task of carrying a surprisingly heavy plot for a children’s cartoon; while mostly light-hearted and fun, some scenes about Steven’s mother are seriously heart wrenching for a TV-PG crowd. The entire production staff has solidly hit the nail on the head by giving viewers a truly unique and diverse cast that feels real, even though half of them are immortal magical beings.
Steven, of course, is the main hero of the show and our hearts. He is upbeat and optimistic to a fault, always believing in the best of others… but when things get Real, Steven is able to step up to the plate in a mature and brave way that indicates we will have some truly amazing growth to witness as he develops through the series. We see some really beautiful interactions between Steven and his father, Greg, which propels some of that growth.
Greg Universe shares his son’s upbeat attitude; he tries to look on the bright side of things as much as possible, often espousing “if every pork chop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hotdogs!” when Steven makes a blunder. Greg struggles to be a good father to Steven—after all, it’s a difficult situation for him. His true love gave up her life to have their son, who has magical abilities and a destiny that Greg cannot really hope to truly understand. He tries his best to be his best for Steven, and that’s really what a good father does.
The three Crystal Gems who help Greg to raise Steven are each well-layered, developed characters with so much built into their personalities. Each Gem will worm their way into your heart. I promise. Between the prim and proper, sword-fighting master Pearl; the rambunctious, sloppy, and crude shape-shifting Amethyst; and the imposing, take-charge-take-no-sh*t, totally boss tank of a fighter Garnet, each character has something to love and something to love to hate about them. (… Except Garnet. She’s got nothin’ but my love.)
Additionally, the show gets major brownie points for featuring so many characters, especially female ones, with a variety of different body shapes/types. The Crystal Gems themselves display a range of body shapes, seen below, and I admire the show for featuring such realistically fantastical characters as their stars. I hope that featuring the Gems in all their glory will result in the encouragement for impressionable younger viewers that all body shapes are awesome and beautiful.
I feel that Steven Universe has created some of the best and most individual characters on television right now, and if you give the show a try I bet you will agree.
Steven Universe is refreshing and so incredibly charming; I cannot recommend it highly enough. The series has a solid creation and production team, fun and intriguing writing, and adorable animation and goofy songs, all held up by an amazing cast of characters you will fall in love with. Light-hearted fun is wrapped around some serious heartbreak in a way that, somehow, still leaves your faith in love and friendship intact, and leaves you wanting to watch more.