Steven Universe is the show my 12 year old self wanted more than anything of the world. I considered 27 different openings that might best encapsulate what I find so wondrous about this show – it’s beautiful pastel color palette and cleverly budgeted animation; it’s warm and dreamy musical score, which often burbles out into full song courtesy of series creator (and one of Adventure Time’s best songwriters) Rebecca Sugar; its unabashed earnestness coupled with an equally sweet but sharp sense of humor, or the Incredibly Important nature of its inclusive writing and casting (you may have even noticed the internet having a meltdown over that this last weekend).
And I stand by all of those as excellent reasons to invest. But none of that quite captures the feel of the thing: the experience of settling into a world of well-shaped characters and getting to see yourself in them when you might not anywhere else, whether that’s in body type, or race, or sexuality; and having those characters practically burst off the screen with adventures that the creators also seem to have thought would be Way Cool once upon a time, tempered through skill and experience into something new while retaining that feeling of possibility and the amazement of seeing something new (whether that’s picking up your first comic or seeing a cartoon from another country on Saturday mornings). “Did I really see that on TV?” Yeah, you did, and it’s only getting more audacious and amazing. With season 3 just getting started, now’s absolutely the time to start. But don’t worry if you’re intimidated about jumping in. I’ve been here since day one, and I’ve got you covered.
[I’ll be tap-dancing around character-related revelations, but there’ll be a few world-building spoilers involved in summing things up. Just as a heads up]
Thousands of years ago (6000 at least) an invading species called Gems came to earth to colonize it, intent on wiping out the native population in the process. Eventually, a small band of Gems lead by Rose Quartz could no longer stand the carnage and turned on their own people in defense of the Earth. Only a handful survived that war, and they became the Crystal Gems: protectors of this planet over its comparatively brief timeline.
But that’s all history – critical, like Adventure Time’s Mushroom War, but mostly referred to in pained asides. Our story proper begins with Steven, a bighearted and chipper kid. His mother, Rose Quartz, gave up her physical form so he could be born, and he’s been living with the Crystal Gems ever since (though his father, Greg, is very much a supportive presence). Much of the first season is of the slice-of-life variety, following Steven as he tags along after the Gems on missions, figures out the powers he’s inherited, and makes friends with the various citizens of Beach City.
The early going can seem pleasant but disposable, in that light, but it’s more calculated than that, feeding us at least one character or backstory relevant detail per episode until the season one finale. That, as the saying goes, is where the “real” show begins: “Mirror Gem” is our first introduction to a Gem who isn’t a Crystal Gem, and who resents “our” Gems mightily for trapping her over the millennia. From there the show both opens up and doubles down on its history, revisiting old stories and settings with new details that make both for great rewatching potential and a well-crafted means of undermining what the audience thinks they know about this world. There’s a space opera playing at the edges of the show’s story, but its beating heart stands with its well-formed cast.
While every secondary character gets their day in the limelight, there’s a little over half a dozen characters who receive prominent focus in the majority of the episodes.
Steven Quartz Universe
Our protagonist, a half-Gem and half-human kid who’s only beginning to learn how his powers work. He tends to see the best in everyone, which sometimes makes him stunningly oblivious but also able to win the hearts and minds of just about everyone he comes across. Deep down, he’s worried about not being able to protect his family and can only feel curious about the woman everyone else misses deeply but he never got to meet.
Great Steven Epiodes: “So Many Birthdays,” “An Indirect Kiss,” “Warp Tour,” “The Test”
The de-facto leader of the Gems: stoic, perceptive, empathic, and skilled at both knowing the right comforting words and the perfect deadpan quip. Garnet is the most emotionally balanced of the Gems, not only the one Steven turns to for advice and reassurance but the rock that keeps Amethyst and Pearl grounded. When things get rough in a fight, her approach is generally “punch it harder.”
Great Garnet Episodes: “Serious Steven,” “Garnet’s Universe,” “Future Vision,” “Jail Break.”
The Gems’ tactician and a swordfighter, as well as the overt ‘teacher’ figure in Steven’s life. Being rather tightly wound, Pearl frets over events that fall outside of her carefully constructed plans (especially where they regard Steven’s safety) and can cling to what she thinks is a good idea like a dog on a bone – no matter how that idea might turn out to be flawed. Her cool intellectual nature is balanced by a giddy excitability at the thought of getting to show off new information or discoveries.
Great Pearl Episodes: “Steven the Sword Fighter,” “Giant Woman,” “Space Race,” “Rose’s Scabbard.”
Angry and sarcastic, Amethyst is usually more interested in a good prank and a nap than taking anything seriously. That doesn’t stop her from fighting her hardest alongside the team and being just as fiercely protective of Steven…she’s just more likely to go too far with a quip, and her deliberately detached attitude hides some real insecurities about her place among the Crystal Gems.
Great Amethyst Episodes: “Tiger Millionaire,” “Secret Team,” “On the Run,” “Maximum Capacity.”
Steven’s dad, owner of the local car wash, and star of the unsuccessful one-man-band Mr. Universe (well, it made one fan. The one that mattered). For a guy who’s had a stunning number of heartaches – aa pretty failed musical career, losing the love of his life, living out of his van, putting his son in someone else’s care – Greg is an unbelievably laidback and kind sort of guy, always there to cheer Steven on and provide what Dad Advice he can while still being needled by the feeling that he’s little more than a nuisance to the Gems.
Great Greg Episodse: “Laser Light Cannon,” “Winter Forecast,” “Maximum Capacity,” “The Message.”
An introverted, nerdy girl and Steven’s best friend, Connie has been drawn into more Gem happenings than any other human cast member. A huge fan of fantasy novels, Connie takes every adventure on with wide eyed wonder, and her skill at quick thinking under pressure often does as much as Steven’s powers to pull them out of trouble. Connie’s overprotective parents are usually not thrilled about her choice in friends.
Great Connie Episodes: “Bubble Buddies,” “Lion 2: The Movie,” “Fusion Cuisine,” “Alone Together.”
Ten Crash Course Episodes:
Now, 43 episodes (even 11 minute episodes) is a lot to watch, especially if you want to go through all of that and last week’s five episode “Steven Bomb” before the next new episode airs. How can you catch up on the capital-P plot before diving into the “Steven Bomb” (which I’ll walk you through in another post, don’t worry)? Here are ten to test out, currently available for purchase on iTunes, Amazon, Youtube, and probably on Cartoon Network’s website if you’re willing to deal with their finicky gating nonsense.
- Laser Light Cannon (An Intro to Rose, Steven, and Greg)
- Bubble Buddies (Connie’s first appearance)
- Giant Woman (introduces Gem fusion)
- Steven the Sword Fighter (how Gems heal)
- An Indirect Kiss (a bit on the Crystal Gems’ history with Rose)
- Mirror Gem/Ocean Gem (introduction of Lapis Lazuli)
- “Lion 3: Straight to Video” (Lion’s connection to Rose)
- Warp Tour (introduction of Peridot)
- The Test (a turning point for Steven)
- On the Run (on Gem invasion tactics)
What to Watch For
So you’re all set to go, either on the short course to catching up or dedicated to binging the whole experience. You’re gonna do great. But before you go, keep an eye out for these details while you watch.
Steven Universe rounds out the trifecta of modern cartoons (along with Adventure Time and Gravity Falls) that have a constant undercurrent of conspiracy theories being formed by the fandom. And that’s for good reason! Season 2 spent almost half of its run revisiting seemingly innocuous character reactions and lines of dialogue and unfolding whole histories from them, proving that no tossed off joke or seeming incongruity can be entirely ignored.
References, References, References
The creative team behind this series has a lot of love for nerd culture, and anime in particular, and there are a staggering number of homages ranging from small visual gags (Steven owns a Cloud Strife action figure) to massive thematic nods (a romantic history between two Gems is implied by echoing a certain soul crushing finger lacing scene from Sailor Moon S). So it’s a fun game and a helpful means of getting past network censors!
(Incidentally, a partial list of referenced series might include but not be limited to: Sailor Moon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Revolutionary Girl Utena, “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” Spirited Away, The Castle of Cagliostro, Dragonball Z, Howl’s Moving Castle, and AKIRA).
Diversity for Days
These days it seems like the show’s diversity is one of its most famous calling cards. But even more impressive than the mere existence of that varied, inclusive writing is how it embraces what diversity means in all-ages media. There are no Very Special Episodes in Steven Universe. There is no ‘different’ character dragged in for an episode or two so that the main character can learn an important lesson before shoving those characters out of the frame again.
Make no mistake, though, its teaching kids in the best way possible: by quiet, unspoken example. The world of Steven Universe is built from the ground up not as a magic utopia where no one has any conflict and constantly postures to show how progressive they are. It simply weaves together the world it wants to see – where POC characters make up a sizable portion of the community, where the Hollywood Standard of good looks is nowhere to be found and characters can just exist comfortably in their skins, where no one bats an eye at the fact that Steven’s being raised by a nontraditional family of queer coded (a status quickly going from subtext to text) Gems so long as those three prove to be responsible guardians – and builds its adventures from that idealistic starting point. Its writers clearly know the power they wield, that a good chunk of the audience watching today will be in charge tomorrow. And that even adults who wished they’d had something similar growing up can still feel a little better about the world, seeing something like this not just exist but thrive.
Hey, readers! Are you a fan of this series, or interested in hearing more about it from my incredibly over-wordy fingertips? Then you’re in luck! Starting this week, I’ll be recapping new episodes of Steven Universe over at The Mary Sue (don’t worry, you’ll still get unique ramblings here twice a week). You can check over there later this week for a rundown of last week’s “Steven Bomb” event, and Friday for a recap-view (reviewcap? renalysis? I’m working on it) of “Open Book” and beyond. Hope to see you there!