Since November 4, 2013, Cartoon Network has aired the series “Steven Universe,” in its line-up of shows. A creation by Rebecca Sugar (more well known for her work on the Adventure Time series), Steven Universe has quickly positioned itself as one of America’s more high-quality cartoons of our era. Following in the tradition of American, 90’s cartoons and the stylization of directors such as Steven Spielberg, Steven Universe is a show that is rich with content for all ages. Not only is this cartoon an excellent addition to Cartoon Network’s line-up, but its quality and depth of writing rival its closest competitor, Adventure Time.
To understand why Steven Universe is so incredible, let’s take a look at the history of animation. Cartoons are a very misunderstood and often times misrepresented cultural phenomena. From the early days of Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny entertaining soldiers overseas during the war to the rich content and quality production of Japanese anime, animated shows have proven time and again that they are a genre all unto themselves. Considering the value that early cartoons held for both children and adults, its no wonder that Warner Brothers and Disney continued to increasingly use adult-themes in their animation (albeit in subtle ways), to capture the attention of both the young and old. In Japan, anime offered a way to capture their rapidly growing technology and expand upon their education-inspired creativity (including classes in mythology and culture that are rarely present in the Western world), while all the while, carefully challenging the oppressive state of the government and making profound, political and cultural statements.
In America, moving forward through the 80s, cartoons continued to provide a very diminished quality of programming for children. Disney still made movies that appealed to adults (such as Snow White), while also keeping their younger audience singing along with movies like Peter Pan and Pinnochio. But, at home, cartoons were either too grown-up for children (such as Hanna Barbara’s The Flinstones), or lacked a significant level of quality and limited their appeal (such as the Smurfs).
That is not to say that we didn’t love our cartoons and run out to the stores to collect our GI-Joe action figures, but there was more interest in watching shows for their superficial, face-paced entertainment and not for the in-depth story. Of course, it seems to this writer, that even during the 80’s, there was a cultural stigmata against adults accepting the idea that cartoons could carry any value once having left child-hood behind. Even science fiction was looked down upon and treated rather contemptuously. Although anime, with its rich content, deep story lines, and characters had reached American shores, building a strong, dedicated following (as it filled the void from standard, American cartoons), it remained a limited access medium that faced even worse, cultural stigmas.
Enter the scene: Steven Spielberg. Here’s a man that had already braved the sketchy world of science fiction, spending more money than Hollywood was comfortable with to create a high-budget, science fiction/alien film that has now taken its place in human history as one of the most beloved films of our day, E.T. When Spielberg brought Warner Brother’s, Tiny Toons into the homes of Americans, he pushed the boundary of what defined American cartoons. Taking part of his cue from the original Warner Brother’s characters (who had always been for a more mature audience), Spielberg began to blend the realm of child cartoons and adult-level entertainment. Cartoons were no longer based on Hasbro getting rich over a toy line, but now they invited families to sit together and enjoy shows that were appropriate for children, but had the subtle humor geared for adults while also making significant comments on current political and cultural faux-pas.
Then, the explosion happened: from the extreme shows like South Park that were geared only to adults, to cartoons like the Animaniacs that blended education and adult humor with something that was funny for even younger children, animation had taken on a whole new purpose. Of course, there were still your “toy-sellers,” such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that continued to be geared toward the younger crowd, but coupled with the improvements in science fiction budgets, Americans were now accepting that television did not have to be dull, stereotypical visions of home-life. And although some of these cartoons had deeper backgrounds, audiences were only beginning to see the potential.
That brings us forward to, Steven Universe. A show rich with catchy music, loveable characters, and award-nominated and winning performances. I have always been a huge fans of animation that have very deep backgrounds. When the screen lights up and its clear by the animation, the characters, and the story that there’s “more than meets the eye”, my imagination is turned on and I am inspired. But, isn’t that what cartoons should do? We are not “sheep,” nor should we act like it. Hollywood’s big into spoon feeding its audiences, thriving on the less intelligent with money to waste (I think there’s a saying attached to that …. ;P), to fund its already over-priced, story-depraved methods. In the same manner as Adventure Time, one only has to look around the world of Steven Universe and see that more is going on. When a cartoon like Steven Universe opens up to a beach with a Shiva-like Goddess carved into the rock and characters who have gems with colors and locations that are reminiscent of chakra energies, one can’t help but see the incredible thought and detail that went into the creation of this new world (without the extensive budget and sometimes overly-excessive realism of anime).
The depth of Steven Universe is also not limited to the main characters. While the stories revolve around the Crystal Gems, the writers have developed individual characters, each with an immense story and background that is not only an excellent support for our protagonist(s), but are also interesting by themselves. Yet, these are only some of the more subtle aspects of Steven Universe that has made this show as wonderful as it is. The creator, Rebecca Sugar, has taken her incredible skills and talents in Adventure Time and developed a new story, with new characters that, if given the chance, can quickly capture your heart and mind!
Steven Universe is a completely unique character in that he is actually the “boone” of the Hero’s Journey (from Joseph Campbell). Seemingly a hero in her own right, his mother, Rose Quartz, has traveled the hero’s path, answering the call and returning afterward to bring her new-found gifts to help better the world. That gift happens to be her son, Steven Universe. This fact is apparent from the very first episode, drawing in its audience because, after all, don’t we want to see the hero? And, if the hero is Rose Quartz, then we most definitely want to know more.
Like his mom, Steven is also a hero on his own journey, called from the moment of his birth. Steven’s view of the world is truly innocent. His companions, the crystal gems (an oxymoron unto itself), have taken on the awkward role of parent as they try to protect and train Steven toward fulfilling his destiny. Even more complex than the characters is the world in which they live. In this universe, a joint relationship between humans and gems has existed for thousands of years, but around 6,000 years ago, something had and the gems were turning on humanity. Only a handful of brave warriors stood against them, giving up their home and their future to protect our world.
To build on this, there are still gems around the planet that appear as monsters as they’ve lost their ability to maintain humanoid forms. We are given just enough information to see that alien cultures exist and that there’s a gem home-world, but not enough to yet make the connection between the two. Toward the end of the first season, we were even treated to a surprise visit from Home-world that turned out to be a very brutal, and terrifying attack on Steven and his family. Another infinitely wonderful value to this show is its management of relationships. Whether its the the unspoken friendship between Amethyst and Greg (in which it was clear that there was more there for Amethyst than we’re told), the unique bond between Steven and Bonnie (his female friend), or the endearing relationship of all three gems, anyone looking for something simple – won’t find it here.
The relationships in Steven Universe are diverse in nature and content. Without wasting our time (like Hollywood does, dragging out love scenes in a teenage-fetish fashion), the love between Greg and Rose Quartz is established immediately. It takes very little to see just how deeply bonded these characters are. Our friends over at the pizza shop are a mystery of their own and the series even dedicates a little, extra time to them, providing additional levels of romance that help us relate to, and care about these characters. But, this show goes one step further. The bond between Ruby and Sapphire that has lead to Garnet is the ultimate in love. It is not a relationship based on superficial, intimate contact, race, culture, gender or anything of that sort. It is the type of perfect union that humans can only dream of achieving. The fusion of Amethyst and Pearl is another example of how relationships are so incredibly well handled in this show. By the time we see these two characters fuse, it’s almost a relief. And, we’re not let down. Their coming together was very well done and achieved a quality in entertainment programming that I can only dream other shows on television will ever strive for.
But, Steven’s appeal toward adults is not the typical “adult humor” hidden subtly throughout as it was with older cartoons. While the 90’s brought us animation that included adult themes, Steven Universe is a cartoon that adults can enjoy because of the intricate story lines, complex character relationships, and just the right amount of mystery and humor that can appeal to a wider audience. Even the trio of alien crystal gems taking care of Steven have a very “Threes Company” type of humor about them that is very family appropriate and entertaining. Much like I discovered with Adventure Time, anyone who is negative about this show is clearly ignorant of the deeper storyline which has only barely begun to emerge.
I could write on for countless hours about this universe – but as it is, I’ve already gone on too long. It’s hard to be pithy about Steven Universe when there are so many wonderful things to say. But, for content (quality production, music, art, and unique characters), characters (development, background, story), plots (overall and episode by episode), audience appeal (for families, adults, children), story (continuity in story, continuing story lines, following the protagonists and antagonists properly, mystery, humor, and most importantly – fun!) – Steven Universe is a 10 out of 10.
Is it perfect? Heck no – but after all, if every pork chop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs!!! (hahaha – thank you to the fans who get that … after all, I had to work it in somewhere).
(P.S. – for the fans – think about this: there’s a complexity in the story with the gem palace that fell into the sea – gems lived there once, in peace – but in peace with humans? So why turn? And, why is “crystal gems” upsetting to home-world (they are very different substances), why did home-world even return and/or – did they even know what happened (ie. did any of the gems who lost ever report back?)? What deal did Rose Quartz make that got gems on her side? Is Earth their only conquest? Doesn’t seem like it would be – which … follow me here … “gem hunters.” Oooh… that would be a fun addition (someday) – and yes, I’ve already prethought this out in detail with Rose Quartz having made this deal with a gem hunter … and his interest in ending kindergarten and being the one who actually saves Amethyst, and … … well, unless Rebecca Sugar asks me to write it out… I’ll just keep it tucked away for now. And, finally – the universe has to be an incredibly interesting challenge for the writers. After all, there’s a gem “home-world”, but the gem’s aren’t one species, so they must be spread out. That doesn’t jive. Earth seems to be some sort of an important nexus. … hmm… see what I mean? This is a GREAT story!!!)