With various mature-themed series and the growing number of over-their-heads kids shows, it has never been a better time to be an adult fan of animation. Steven Universe is one of the best shows currently airing, but you might not know that at first glance. So, let's talk about this wonderful gem of a show.
Steven may look like your average pudgy preteen, but he's actually a half-alien, half-human warrior in training. It's not really something you could tell by just looking at him.
OK, the gemstone in his navel projecting a translucent shield may be a bit of a giveaway that Steven isn't your average kid. He's like a modern-day troll doll, only with super powers and more clothes. Steven's living situation is bit strange, as his mother had to give up her physical form to bring him into the world. Basically she became him so he could exist. It's pretty bizarre, in a super interesting way. That's apparently how things go when alien ladies hook up with human men.
With the departure of Steven's mother, who went by the name Rose Quartz, lil' ol' Steven was stuck with his beach bum father Greg and three of Rose's outer space pals. These pals are similar beings known as Gems, a race of genderless geology-based individuals who draw their power from their signature stones. And even though they're technically genderless, Gems all take the physical form of lady folks, except Steven of course, who is half Gem.
The main crew, who refer to themselves as The Crystal Gems, consist of Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. They're the names of gemstones! Get it? Steven lives with these three in a house/temple in Beach City as he trains to be a badass warrior. In fact, they're the ones who are training him. Each Gem has their own personality that adds to their character's involvement in Steven's life. They may not look like the most power group of heros, but they all pack a mighty wallop. Each Gem can reach into their namesake stone and pull out a personalised weapon.
As if those powers weren't enough, each gem can also fuse with each other. Much like Dragon Ball Z, the Gems can use their own special dance moves to combine their beings, creating giant multi-limbed warriors with unique weapons and completely new personalities. It's only used in dire situations, much like the Megazord in Power Rangers. Though all of the Gems can fuse, none of them have yet to do so with Steven. He has fused with someone… but I'm not spoiling that one for you.
It's like a silly sitcom with three different mums and one whacky son. But there's also Steven's dad, Greg Universe. He plays a big part in Steven's life as well. He's not really sure what to make of his son, who used to be his wife… which is understandable. Kind of a win-lose situation for poor Greg who lives in a van and runs a car wash. This multiple odd couple dynamic is what makes the show work on a lot of different levels. Aliens have to deal with normal people doing normal people things and vice versa. Hilarity ensues, as do some surprisingly emotional and uplifting circumstances.
One of the most memorable episodes occurs when Steven sneaks out to a local amateur wrestling match only to find that Amethyst has been wrestling under the title "Purple Puma" for kicks. Instead of ratting her out he decides to join her in the ring as the eccentric "Tiger Millionaire." The team slams and bribes their way to the top before the other Gems catch wind and come to stop them. It's a classic "walk in their shoes" moment, and it really shows how the Gems are still getting to know each other even after hundreds of years.
The settings in the show are fantastic. Steven and the Crystal Gems may live on Earth, but it's not the earth we're familiar with. While shows like Adventure Time are set far in the apocalyptic future, Steven Universe is set in an alternate Earth timeline. Down is up, dogs love cats and Hitler won the war. Well, maybe it's not that alternate. The main difference is that aliens invaded the Earth long ago and had some sort of epic battle which resulted in the Crystal Gems staying behind to protect the world. In fact, they're protecting it from other Gems. Bet you didn't see that one coming, Mr. Shyamalan.
The art direction is a great mishmash of fantasy and sci fi, as Steven and the Gems have to travel around the world and into other dimensions to take care of devious monsters and villains who are running amuck. While many of the fights take place in scenic Beach City, many are fought in fantastical worlds filled with floating islands and cavernous craters. Just look at some of this art.
Breathtaking. I wouldn't mind taking a vacation in the last one. Assuming it's free of any dangerous monsters of course.
Taking down monsters is no small feat though, and the Gems have to use their signature weapons to get the job done. This leads to a boatload of terrific action sequences. They don't happen in every episode, but when they do… ho boy. It's probably the best action a western cartoon has seen since Samurai Jack ended back in 2004. And I don't make that comparison lightly. The main difference is that Steven Universe tends to throw some laughs into the mix along with the action, usually in the form of Steven being his awkward self.
In one of my favourite episodes, pictured in the GIF above, Steven, Amethyst and Pearl accidentally release a swarm of previously captured monster limbs. In order to find and destroy them all before team leader Garnet finds out, they form a "Secret Team." The monster bits are destroyed one by one using the Gems powers, but the scenes are always preceded by a hand drawn logo and Steven whispering "SECRET TEAM." It's hysterical and it works on so many silly levels.
Music plays a big role in the show as Steven is very musically inclined and tends to make up ditties on a whim. He'll often burst into song when he is struggling with an issue and doesn't know how to cope. For example, when Steven finds he and his friends stranded on an alien island with no route home he decides to just make the best of it and strum a song.
Just like the action sequences, songs don't happen every episode, but they're always a treat. "We… are the Crystal Gems!" The first line of the Steven Universe theme song will be forever burned into my brain. It's one of the only theme songs that somehow never grows old, even when you're on a binge watching a dozen episodes.
Steven Universe is a surprisingly deep show. The character bonds and relationships grow as both the past and future are revealed one episode at a time. Characters like Greg or Pearl, who you may have disliked from the start, are given backstories that viewers can relate to. It's all part of some grand expanding universe (pun intended) that keeps pulling you in.
The showrunners have plenty of diverse and complex characters to work with, but they tend to take things further. The series has pushed the boundaries of what many kids' shows should promote, with some strong nods towards same-sex relationships and being OK with who you are. Despite all the goofy antics and over the top action, Steven Universe is genuinely inspiring.
A love for the world of gaming is also very much present, if you were having a hard time connecting to the show in a meaningful way. Steven can often be found playing his Nintendo 64 or Gamecube on his tiny TV and even has a windowsill full of famous gaming knockoffs, including Sanic.
At the end of each episode, when the credits roll and the end theme springs to life, Steven Universe will usually have you thirsting for more. It's a show that not only sets up a great overarching storyline, but creates a world that you want to explore and secrets you'll want to gab about with like minded fans. It leaves just enough questions unanswered that viewers await their next clue enthusiastically.
I'll be the first to admit that I didn't want to give Steven Universe a chance when it first premiered. I was happy with Adventure Time and Regular Show. It was only after my wife got a few of Steven's songs stuck in my head that I truly took notice and found out what a wonderful world creator Rebecca Sugar crafted.
Note: If you're interested in watching a few episodes, you can check out Cartoon Network or you can stream the first 30 episodes or so through Hulu Plus. I highly recommend you get a few episodes in before making any judgement, as it takes a bit for the show to find it's footing if you're not familiar with it. Enjoy!