Steven Universe by Rebecca Sugar
Steven Universe, an episodic 11-minute animated television show created by Rebecca Sugar, is one of my new not-guilty-at-all pleasures. It tells the story of young Steven Universe and his friends, the Crystal Gems, humanoid mineral-based aliens. Steven is half-human, half-gem. His dad, Greg Universe, is a car wash owner and aspiring musician. His mom, Rose Quartz, was one of the Crystal Gems until she gave up her physical form to have a child. Steven lives in Beach City with the three remaining Crystal Gems: Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. Together they work to save the world from various alien threats. Along the way, the exuberant Steven bonds with the employees at several restaurants; local conspiracy theorists; magical and alien life forms; and the human girl, Connie, who becomes his best friend.
When I first heard about this show, I thought it sounded a bit silly. I wasn’t sure I wanted to dive into something that seemed, on the outside, like a lot of kids’ cartoons — needlessly complicated and cutesy. However, the show doesn’t feel like that at all. Instead, it feels fresh, fun, and surprisingly realistic.
The Crystal Gems do have a complex backstory, which comes out slowly over the whole of season one. But Steven Universe doesn’t focus on figuring out where the Gems came from, or why they’re stuck on Earth, or who all the other aliens are who keep attempting to invade Earth. It focuses on its most human component — Steven. Even though he’s half-human, half-gem, he comes across as all-kid. And what a great kid! The kind of kid anyone would want to be, or have: open, curious, loving, and enthusiastic. He might sound like a Gary Stu, but all of these qualities get him — and the rest of the gang — into trouble on a regular basis.
The best thing about Steven Universe is the relationships between the characters. The hallmark of most good writing (as we saw in Sarah Gailey’s essay in Expanded Universe) is creating good characters, and then putting those characters into a room together. It is a delight, over Season One, to explore Steven’s unique friendship with each of the Gems. Each of them brings different qualities to his life: nurturing Pearl, fun Amethyst, decisive Garnet. Garnet, by the way, is my favorite. She’s the group’s warrior, a total badass, and the quintessential “strong, silent” type — and her rare-but-heartfelt tenderness towards Steven makes my heart grow three sizes every time. What’s even better is that these displays of Garnet’s affection increase as the show goes on. You can practically see Steven making the Gems more human.
The Gems’ alien abilities make them a great metaphor for relationships. They are able to “fuse” with each other, creating a life form bigger and stronger than any of them separately. But the manner of fusing, the shape it takes, and the abilities the resulting Gem Fusion displays — all of these depend on the two Gems doing the fusing. The first episode where we learn this, “Giant Woman,” is mostly about how Pearl and Amethyst, polar opposites in most things, don’t get along very well. They are able to fuse, but only after they figure out the one thing they both agree on — their need to protect Steven.
The other residents of Beach City, while not given as much screen time, are equally quirky, funny, and heartfelt. Lars and Sadie, the bickering on-and-off-again couple that runs the Donut Shop, are Steven’s friends, along with the owners and employees of most of the other restaurants on the boardwalk, including the unappealingly-named Fish Stew Pizza. In the first season, each of these groups of characters has at least an episode or two devoted to exploring their story. Greg Universe, Steven’s dad, is one of my favorites. A long-haired hippie who runs a carwash, Greg spends lots of time with his son even though they don’t live together. He shares music and enigmatic-but-crucial advice, like, “If every pork chop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs!” One of my favorite scenes is watching the ever-chill Greg have a panic attack when he realizes just how much danger Steven, as a half-gem, is regularly in.
But my favorite relationship on Steven Universe is between Steven and Connie because, while the show is clearly teasing a romantic relationship at some point down the road, their relationship remains one of staunch friendship. Connie shares her favorite TV shows and books with Steven, and he shares his magical alien world with her. Even in the moments when he worries that he’s bringing her too much trouble and danger, he can’t help but rely on her because, as she has said, she wants to be “part of his universe.”
I should also mention the music. Not every episode features a song, but songs are featured often enough to deserve comment. They’re usually short, a character bursting into song because something in the moment has inspired them. Often it’s Steven singing, and voice actor Zach Callison does a great job of making his Steven-singing voice pleasant but realistically kid-like. But the intro to the show, “We are the Crystal Gems,” is sung by the four main characters and is catchy enough that my husband sings it routinely around the house, even though he thinks the show is kind of juvenile. And the song during the end credits (“Love Like You,” sung by show creator Rebecca Sugar) is so tender that it made me cry the first time I heard it.
In short, Steven Universe has become one of my very favorite shows. It makes me uncomplicatedly happy in a way that few other things do because, after each 11-minute episode, the show’s mixture of relatable characters, bizarre alien backstories, and quirky charm have left me feeling better than I did before.