Three years ago, Cartoon Network introduced a show called Steven Universe. I recall my first impression from the commercials as being—well, not impressed. “It’s another show centering another cis male white character,” I sighed to myself. “Nobody ever wants to try anything new or groundbreaking.” But then I heard the show was by a woman creator, Rebecca Sugar, and that caused me to raise my brows and rethink.
When the first episode aired, I was immediately charmed by the short and pleasant theme song. Shows had been trending toward 15 second theme songs for a while but this one fit nicely into that spot without feeling truncated. Then I saw the first two episodes: “Gem Glow” and “Laser Light Cannon.” We met Steven: a sweet, roly-poly sugar donut of a child, full of optimism and hope. We met the Crystal Gems: taciturn but playful Garnet; wild and mischievous Amethyst; and straight-laced but sensible Pearl. We met his father, Greg: described by the Gems as “kind of a mess,” but clearly devoted to helping his son in a dramatically unusual set of circumstances. We also, in a sense, were introduced to Rose, Greg’s lost love and Steven’s mother. Those two episodes were cute, funny, and sweet. Greg’s tears at remembering Rose were a pleasant surprise, since toxic masculinity says dudes don’t cry.
As the series progressed, the episodes continued for quite some time in the silly adventure vein, although a bigger arc seemed to be forming. Steven is half human, half Crystal Gem. His mother Rose was a Crystal Gem herself, but his father, Greg, is completely human. Steven’s powers are beginning to manifest, and the remaining Gems have to teach him how to use them. This was a different take on the “kids with powers and a destiny” genre of shows that all seemed to copy each other, like Jake Long and Juniper Lee’s shows did.
The episodes continued along, with the whimsical and cute art style, the beautiful pastel colors and the interesting background design—all of which I appreciated aesthetically. Steven as a character continued breaking masculinity tropes. When excited, he would become starry-eyed. When moved, he shed tears unabashedly. Then I got to episode 12, “Giant Woman.” Steven had sung before, after a fashion, rapping the Cookie Cat theme in episode 1. But “Giant Woman” was a full fledged song, and it was infectiously catchy. The show had me hooked from that moment on: cute, funny, with a bigger arc on the way; breaking bad tropes down, spinning old genres in a new way, gorgeous art, and now music too?
I had no idea what was coming as the series continued. Steven’s cute crush Connie would grow to be his closest friend. A mirror the Gems used like a tool would contain an astonishing secret with ramifications that would come back to bite them later. Tiny tidbits that seemed like cute and curious moments would be resonant, even important, many episodes later. Best of all the show is rewatchable: not only for those resonant moments that make more sense on a second viewing, but for the music. I watch “Jailbreak” every chance I get and the big number of the episode, “Stronger Than You” gets me choked up every time.
Without spoiling anything, the show got even better as we learned about the relationships involved.
Is it perfect? No. The crew tries with genuine earnestness, but missteps on occasion with matters of race. Their footing is more sure on other marginalised groups’ representation. But three seasons later, the silly comedy show has given us complex storylines, multiple arcs, and more character development than you can shake a Cheeseburger Backpack at. It’s given us queer representation that isn’t just lip service. It’s given us life lessons that anyone can take away, not just children.
Cartoon Network has been almost cruel with the airing schedule. It started as a full 30 minute show, weekly…then went on hiatus. It came back as one 11 minute episode at a time, then went on hiatus. Then they began airing what crew and fandom alike call the Steven Bomb: 5 new episodes a night for a week straight—always with plot revelations. In 2016, the Summer of Steven brought us the Steven Nuke: four weeks of Steven Bombs back to back. Through all this the fandom has pulled together, persevered, and given love to the creative team behind the show—the Crewniverse—with one regrettable exception for which respectful fandom has apologized. Every time an episode airs, Tumblr is abuzz for days afterward with discourse and fanart.
We’re in season four now. We now know so much about Steven and the Gems. We know about why the Gems are on Earth and why they turned their backs on their homeworld. We even know some new characters who aren’t quite officially Crystal Gems yet. But in all that time we’ve only had tantalizing little morsels about Rose. Cartoon Network promises us that the time has come for answers when the show returns on January 30. The episodes were leaked two weeks back but I resisted looking, so I plan to watch as unspoiled as possible, ready for the shocks the show is going to throw at us viewers.
There’s still time before the end of the month to get on board. Cartoon Network, Hulu and Netflix all have early seasons available. Better yet, find a friend who has all the episodes. But run, don’t walk, to your viewing device of choice, and see why Steven Universe is such a fandom favorite!