I have a confession to make. Steven Universe, which I only finished just recently, is the first Cartoon Network show I have ever watched. I never watched Dexter’s Lab, Powerpuff Girls, Pickle Rick… nothing! I didn’t even watch anime on Adult Swim. So, with that out of the way, let’s check out Steven Universe!
It seems that Steven Universe just throws you in, right from season one, episode one. Basically, the titular Steven is a half-human, half-gem-boy; a product of his late mother, Rose Quartz, and this fat old guy named Greg. He lives with three gem ladies- Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl (AND STEVEN! Sorry… had to reference the opening)- and they protect the world from monsters and stuff.
If you couldn’t tell, Steven Universe is confusing. In my process of watching the show, I realized that the episodes seem famously difficult to watch in chronological order. The episodes weren’t just aired slightly out of order, but streaming services additionally have a number of massive continuity errors with the way they’re listed. Fortunately, the wiki has an episode list (in addition to a very comprehensive Reddit post) that you can use. Hulu is by far the best place to watch it, because it has the episodes listed individually, and not in two-episode sets, which avoids a bulk of the ordering issues.
But even if you watch it in the proper order (which I presume I did?), it really does throw you right into everything with no context, like I said before. Speaking of context, it’s almost as if the show expects you to figure out what’s going on THROUGH the context of what happens. I feel like that’s too much of an expectation for a cartoon, especially since 2010s cartoons have more involved narratives. But hey, the first few episodes do a good job at establishing a basic aspect of the premise, and how the series works in general.
Disregarding the confusion with the watching order, how good is Steven Universe anyway? Well, for starters, it is perhaps the slowest burn that I’ve seen in a cartoon. The first season more or less has all my problems with season one of Avatar: The Last Airbender; a lot of self-contained narratives, and not a lot of core narrative. The first episode set with a real sense of plot progression is episodes 25 and 26, but after that, it’s business as usual for a while.
One thing I noticed in Steven Universe was that I didn’t exactly find it funny. A lot of the humor, other than stuff from the gem ladies, is kind of flat. Apart from a couple of blips of cleverness, I didn’t exactly laugh all that much. But maybe… the show was not meant to be funny.
The big surprise is that Steven Universe has a bizarrely engaging core narrative. When the show actually tries to ramp it up, it’s a darn good time. There’s a lot of interesting stuff that they build up to when it comes to Rose Quartz’s backstory, as well as the lore of the gems themselves. The show also builds a more and more involved narrative over time. My biggest problem with it is that the gem world ends up being this super-dystopian society where there’s no free will, and they end up being all like “Wow, Earth and humans are so special and wonderful, my world sucks!” It bothered me as someone who doesn’t want to believe that humanity is unique in the cosmos, but in the end, it’s not that big of a deal.
Steven Universe also tackles one of the most relatable themes in human existence: identity. The most interesting mechanic of the gems is their ability to fuse with each other, creating new and powerful gems with their own fused personalities. In addition to that, Steven is technically his own mother, whose past ends up getting… rather tumultuous. Plus, there are multiple of the same gems that exist at one time. The show begs asking questions about “what is the self” and all that pretentious junk, but Steven Universe kind of just shows the fusion for what it is instead of waxing its own poetic.
More than in any cartoon I’ve watched, I was seriously caught off guard by the characters. Steven starts off as your typical, overly-optimistic kid. But after a while, he ends up involved in some of the best and most emotional scenes in the series. However, he is kind of a Gary Sue. One running theme with the show is that he resolves a lot of conflicts verbally. While it does fit with the core themes of the story, as someone who had finished Kimetsu no Yaiba– with its overly righteous main protagonist that everyone, even his enemies, loves- I was a bit bothered by Steven when he’d wax sentimental mumbo jumbo.
Steven’s father, Greg, is also a great character who’s constantly had to live with the loss of Rose Quartz. The lead female human is a girl named Connie. She initially comes off as that “outcast girl who has the main character walk into her life and BOOM! all girls want to be her”, but her relationship with Steven is a lot cuter than that contrived romance. She ended up growing on me more than I thought she would. There are also a wide variety of other townsfolk, from Ronaldo the conspiracy theorist, to the enigmatic Onion, who all have memorable personalities.
But the real gems of the show are, well, the gems. Pearl seems cool and collected, but she has some serious O.C.D. Amethyst is the fun, rambunctious one who also happens to be an outlier of the trio. And Best Girl Garnet is very deadpan, but sometimes has some of the best one-liners. However, underneath their hard outer shells (pun intended) are some surprisingly well-fleshed out characters. They go through some serious issues, and unlike other cartoons, it actually felt engaging to, well, engage in their character arcs.
But they’re not the only gems. After season one, we see some new faces, such as Lapis Lazuli and Peridot. Lapis is kind of the tortured waifu who needs to be taught happiness by the main character, and is probably my least favorite gem. Peridot is a typical tsundere, but it’s funny to see her misinterpret aspects of human culture. There are many other gems, but. I won’t mention them because they don’t show up until over halfway through the story.
When it comes to visuals, Steven Universe is very appealing. The fights are well-animated, and everyone has memorable character design. The one complaint I have with this aspect is that people’s nostrils look kind of like slits instead of nostrils. But hey, a nitpick is a nitpick.
And speaking of nitpicks, I’m about to destroy my reputation in one fell swoop. Steven Universe has a good amount of musical numbers. And to be honest… I’m not a big fan of most of them. I know I just said something awful, but hey, I said “most”. There were a couple of songs that I liked, but I won’t name them, specifically because I don’t know what any of their names actually are (for the record, at least one of the songs I do like is the fan-favorite in the series).
But if you noticed the title of this post, you’d know that Steven Universe is not over, even if you finish the final episode of the main series. Set two years after the finale (and thanks goodness it is; Steven’s voice doesn’t sound whiny anymore), Steven Universe: The Movie initially comes off as cash-savvy filler, but has just as much plot relevance as the main story. Overall, it’s a fun movie that also has some of the better (and more abundant) musical numbers in the series. It can theoretically be skipped, but one of its characters appears late in Steven Universe Future, the concluding mini-series of the franchise.
Following the movie, Future attempts to bring final closure to Steven’s character arc, and teaches a number of additional life lessons. It tackles a lot of his emotional insecurities as his powers start becoming as unstable as his mental state. It starts off kind of hit-or-miss, but it ramps up to the highest emotional state in the entirety of the series. It’s kind of stupid that (at this time) the only way to watch Future all the way through is to buy it on Amazon Prime Video, but it’s well worth spending, provided that you sufficiently enjoyed the main series.
Final Verdict (Average of all Media): 8.5/10
Normally, I cannot stand narratives that deal with timeless, “relatable” themes like growing up and identity. But Steven Universe tackles them in a thoughtful and honest way that isn’t merely just mooching off of people who want to see themselves in a fictional setting. I’ve grown to be able to respect Cartoon Network because of their willingness to air a show like Steven Universe. And if it weren’t for the end of COVID-19, I probably would’ve tried watching stuff like Rick and Morty. But alas, it was not meant to be; TV isn’t my primary calling after all. Anyways, I recommend Steven Universe to those who want a different cartoon, one that isn’t there just to numb your children with fart jokes.