Friday, November 13, 2015

Checking in With "Steven Universe"

It's been about two years and seventy-odd episodes since "Steven Universe" premiered, and high time I checked back in with one of the best animated shows currently on the air.  Minor spoilers ahead for the first season.

After my first few episodes of "Steven Universe," I expected the rest of the series to be a fairly laid back, easygoing romp with a lot of humor and some occasional low-stakes fantasy monster bashing.  And for a long time, that's exactly what it was.  However, about halfway through the first season, we started getting some pretty significant pieces of back story.  The more Steven learns about his powers, the more he learns about his mother and the other Crystal Gems. New concepts and skills are often introduced in lighter, funnier episodes first, only to come back later in darker contexts.  And soon it becomes clear that even though Steven and the audience don't know exactly what's going on, or what each new bit of information means, it's all adding up to something big.

This Is a really refreshing approach to worldbuilding and serialization, which we've been seeing more of in action cartoons.  More perceptive older viewers should be able to catch on to what's going on fairly quickly, but younger viewers who don't understand the specifics still get a sense of the impact on the characters.  Steven sees the Gems getting increasingly worried and upset with each new discovery.  He sees that many of his own personal victories turn out to have consequences he didn't expect, and his worldview becomes more complex as a result.  The Steven at the end of the first season has grown and matured considerable from the happy-go-lucky kid who was showing off his cheeseburger backpack at the start.  He's still a goofy optimist, but one who has had to deal with a lot of tough situation and emotions.  And the Gems have turned out to be far, far more complicated than they appeared to be at the outset.

What I makes "Steven Universe" particularly strong is its focus on relationships.  In this show, feelings matter and can be a source of power in a very literal sense.  But while there is a lot of emphasis on building bonds, more time is spent on healing old hurts and dealing with some unusually fraught emotional baggage.  There are a wide variety of insecurities, traumas, and fears explored by the characters, some of which are pretty dark and have the potential to get much darker.  The loss of Steven's mother, Rose Quartz, is an event that most of the main characters are still dealing with in various ways.  These aren't issues that come up in every episode, but they drive the main storylines and are at the crux of our young hero's journey.  It's especially apparent in the stories where some big, plotty, magical event happens, but the actual conflict is centered on Steven trying to deal with some smaller, side problem that the show patiently reveals is just as important to take seriously.

I really adore the Crystal Gems as characters, especially as their personalities and flaws have come into sharper focus.  Fussy Pearl may actually be the least in control of herself and the most potentially destructive.  Amethyst still has a lot of growing up to do, and appears to be on a similar arc to Steven.  Garnet is awesome and my favorite for reasons I can't get into without spoiling too much.  And all of them are so funny too.  I love that the Gems can be ripping on monsters one minute and engaging in silly bickering the next.  Their interactions with regular humans are a riot.  As much as "Steven Universe" is about fighting evildoers and learning about special alien powers, it's also very invested in Steven's day-to-day life as a regular human kid.  I love how involved he gets with helping out the various inhabitants of Beach City, even if some of them tend to get on my nerves.  Less of Ronaldo and the Cool Kids, please.

The one character who's grown on the me the most is Steven's dad, Greg Universe, especially as we've learned more about his past and relationship with Rose Quartz.  A balding, washed up rocker, living out of a van, it was hard to see him as more than comic relief for a long time, but a few poignant flashback episodes and present day bonding episodes have changed that.  I know that eventually we're going to get to his account of Rose Quartz's departure, and I'm kind of dreading watching him get his heart broken.  And the fact that I care about that more than I care about the impending arrival of the Big Bads and their sinister Earth-threatening plots just shows you what kind of show "Steven Universe" is.

The hiatus can't go by fast enough, and I'm already anticipating a third season.  Happy watching.

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