This show makes me laugh and cry in equal measure – and it doesn’t hurt that it’s subversively queer to boot…
Steven Universe just got renewed for two more seasons! But why are dorks like Henry celebrating more episodes of a kids show? Let him tell you why…
For more than a year I’ve been telling people over and over and over again that they need to be watching Steven Universe, and here I am doing it again. You see, that’s the kind of fervent devotion this Cartoon Network series inspires in people. Creator Rebecca Sugar’s incredible cartoon world is one of the best shows currently on TV, and it’s hard to grasp why it sometimes feels like I’m the only one talking about it. The world needs to know!
Let me give you the quick series pitch. Steven Universe is a new-ish Cartoon Network show created by Rebecca Sugar, the animator also behind some of the best episodes of Adventure Time (Simon & Marcy, Bad Little Boy). The show stars a hyper-positive, adventurous boy named Steven Universe, who is part of the Crystal Gems, a powerful team of women known as Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. The interstellar troup defends the Earth from monsters, while also dealing with the fun mundanity of playing video games, watching pro wrestling, or getting a cool backpack.
Each episode more or less features a fun-loving little kid teaming up with Sailor Moon to save the world and learn life lessons, which is as good as it sounds. In fact, a good part of SU’s DNA derives from anime of the ’80s and ’90s like the aforementioned Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, Utena, and Ranma ½. All those art styles blend together for a twee sensibility all its own, and each episode gradual builds a unique world you come to care about deeply. Interested yet?
Steven Universe’s humor and adorable art style are compelling, and if given enough time, SU will grab onto your heart and not let go. Creator Rebecca Sugar worked on some of the most emotional episodes of Adventure Time, and she and her team bring that same level of empathy and affection to all of Steven Universe’s characters. The core focus of the show is Steven’s journey of self discovery as he goes from a naive kid who eats too much ice cream to a skilled member of the Crystal Gems. But the Gems learn just as much from Steven, and the steady growth of all the characters will be what keeps pulling you back to each new episode.
Soon enough you’ll see how much Steven cares for everyone he meets, and you’ll feel the same for all the people of Beach City, the show’s setting. Like a coastal version of Springfield with a heavy dose of Miyazaki-ish innocence, you’ll see Steven dive into the lives of lovable weirdos like Onion, Lars, Sadie, the Pizza family, and more. Even though there’s tons of humor to be found, those characters’ feelings and histories aren’t dealt with lightly, and you come to know them all through Steven and his family.
Family is a huge part of Steven Universe as well. See, Steven has three moms and one dad, all of which raise him after his biological mother passed away giving birth to Steven. On a certain level, it’s about superheroes and a long-haired slacker teaming up to be a nontraditional family raising Steven together. And that’s just one of many ways the show subversively (and even openly) challenges the status quo while still being true to its goofy self.
Steven Universe is one of the most subversively queer shows on TV, and it’s getting more and more bold each season. Not only is Steven raised by three women, but these ladies have special fusion abilities that allow them to form into one being. Sure, you’ve seen Goku and Vegeta do the same thing, but Dragon Ball’s fusions weren’t as provocative as this…
And yes, that’s Nicki Minaj doing the voice of that fusion. The fusion as sex metaphor has been growing into a whole thing in the second season, saying lots of things about intimacy, same sex relationships, and consent that most kids programs won’t even touch. Working on these levels makes it even more enjoyable for adults, and just imagine the day all these kids realize what these thinly veiled metaphors are really all about. They’ll write so many Buzzfeed articles!
Also, the power of the fusion dances ties into Steven Universe’s stellar use of music throughout. Rebecca Sugar writes much of the music, with many episodes having at least one original song tied to the story. Some of the most important moments in the series history happen in song, to the point where the show is a borderline musical on occasion. These songs range from pop confections to ukulele strummed ballads to glam rock, all to be stuck in your head for weeks at a time.
I can count on few shows to make me laugh, cry, or say “wow,” as often as Steven Universe. It has so many of the qualities (and staff) as shows like Adventure Time or Bee & Puppycat, but with an even more beautiful spirit. You can find the first year of shows on Hulu, or you can buy them off iTunes or Amazon – or other, less legal streaming places. I think you’ll like it from the first moment, but stick with it and you’ll come to love it, just as Steven finds love for every person he meets. And don’t be scared to cry at the feelings that may erupt.
Here’s the best version of the theme, though there are some spoilers for season 1.