Steven Universe: Series Premiere ReviewNovember 8, 2013
Cartoon Network has had an interesting history. If you remember the Dexter’s Laboratory days, you’re a lucky individual. Starting out as largely a repository of sorts for various cartoons, the channel eventually gathered strength through unique programming, even catering to adults with the legendary Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Other shows, like The Powerpuff Girls, revolutionized cartoons forever. People forget, cartoons weren’t for children originally, and if you don’t know that a quick glance into the Warner Bros. vaults should open your eyes. So what? Yes, adults watch some of these shows as much as children, deal with it.
In the past decade, Cartoon Network has largely been surviving – very well I might add – by mixing cartoons aimed at younger audiences, and those that cater to both younger viewers and adults (not including Adult Swim). Adventure Time and Regular Show, for example, have huge followings in the young-adult and adult demographic. Others, like the horrible Uncle Grandpa, dominate ratings for 6-year-olds as their attempts at catering to older viewers fall flat due to heavily recycled ideas. Steven Universe is the most recent addition to the channel’s weekly line-up, and it comes with a lot of hype as the first series headed by a female creator. That would be Rebecca Sugar, who formerly worked on Adventure Time and – *shudder* – as a storyboard artist for the absolute waste-of-space film that was Hotel Transylvania. Never watch that film, ever.
But wait, back to the topic – Adventure Time you say? The show defies explanation; it’s like Heidegger turned into a cartoon, or something. Steven Universe, according to Sugars, was created to mix fantasy and reality, primarily through its main character. Steven is an overweight boy whose mother was originally part of the Crystal Gems, a group of super-powered women/ girls (it’s not entirely clear) who derive their powers from magical gems they possess. There’s Garnet, an Amazonian, burgundy-toned female whose attitude reminds one of actresses from the blaxploitation days, Amethyst, a purple, token “fun” girl who likes to eat and do “crazy” things, and finally Pearl, a pale white, token thin girl who is a perfectionist and will enter Jim Gaffigan’s dreams forever. Steven is the child of a former Gem, who fell in love with a completely burned-out hippie. Though not currently explained, Steven somehow received his mother’s rose quartz and became one of the Crystal Gems.
The plot of Steven Universe is simple; the protagonist is part of a group of superheroes with quirks, they defend the town of Beach City, and they save the world, or, umm, the beach. Pretty basic, actually. In the first episode you’re given a very, very loose introduction to the world and characters. Some giant centipede monsters attack for no reason, followed by this planet beast that’s like a giant eye – also for no clear reason – and of course they save the day and everyone sheds a tear. The animation style of Steven Universe is highly reminiscent of earlier CN series, but very stylized at times, and rather nicely done. It’s easily the strongest point, because the music thus far runs the gamut of Urban Outfitters coffee shop study session shuffles that make you want to destroy every acoustic guitar or ukulele on the planet. But how, based on what we were given in the series premiere, does the show itself fare? Answer forthcoming wait for it here it is: pretty blah.
Steven Universe, in its current state, is largely a middle-of-the-road entry in CN’s hierarchy. Artistically speaking, it’s good, but the rest of it is easily a straight 3 out of 5, at best. The reason is simple. Sugars is trying to do something that at times can kind of be annoying because we’ve seen it already. The elevation of the underdog or the underprivileged or the under-endowed, what have you, has been a part of the cultural schema of American thought for decades. Glorifying this type of character in spite of what usually happens in the real world has been around since like forever. As such, Steven already runs the risk of either being really enjoyable or really annoying. The reason for this is a lot of the details are still a mystery, and they’re going to need some explaining.
Steven Universe began with Steven already a part of the Gems. Though you see his father and learn a little about his mother, you’re often wondering why in the hell he’s even part of this super group to begin. He has no command of his powers, which is obviously something to be developed in later episodes, however, one must consider this. If Steven is roughly 12 years old (it’s not clear, but probably around there), this means he was given his powers very early on, likely at birth; he still hasn’t figured it out, at least a little, after over a tenth of a century? One has to assume he’s been in situations with the Gems before, but the series starts as though it’s all simply happening right now, which doesn’t make any sense. He’s been a part of the Gems for how long? Since he was born? Since last week? Since the day the series started? Who wrote this? Explain yourself, because this kind of plot hole bothers the crap out of some people, and hipster references to things turning into cats isn’t going to make us ignore it or laugh, ever. We’re sick of damn cheezburgers. You can has fist to face.
Further, Sugars in her attempt at elevating these characters has taken the most obvious route possible in their portrayal. Overweight child as star who obsesses with eating, overweight girl character hero, and then counterbalanced with underweight girl character hero. The latter two have powers, the first a blossoming power that will eventually surface and we’ll probably find completely anti-climactic. Their personalities are entirely tied into their stereotypical appearance and outlook. Amethyst likes to eat and acts like that full-bodied, cute girl we all grew up with who was the “life of the party”, and Pearl is a forward, precise, bookish girl, sans glasses. I mean, is it possible to be any more stereotypical with your portrayal of the female gender? This leaves Garnet, who is currently the only character with enough personality to gain your attention. She’s easily the most charismatic in the entire series, wonderfully voiced by Estelle, with a vibe that doesn’t feel so wooden and on-the-surface.
Steven’s father is another problem, with clear genetic connections to Homer Simpson, except lifted from his house and doughnuts and thrown into a hippie van riding on the dead dreams of a musical career he never achieved – complete with tan lines, a tank top and sandals. Of course, these types of characters are here for the “reality” of the show and a pang of emotion, and it’s there, to some extent, but not really. So far, the emotional quality of Steven Universe is largely superficial, and unnecessary because it’s not melded to the overall vision properly. As they are, the majority of the characters involved directly with the Gems are highly unlikely, unrealistically unlikely. The others, well, they’re just there, and one of them has ear gauges and works in a doughnut shop… This proves the main fault of Steven Universe in its current state. Here it is.
Steven Universe suffers primarily from a lack of consistency and self-awareness. In trying to combine both fantasy and reality, Sugars and her team have not succeeded, because the show mainly goes from reality to fantasy in separation. When they combine, it doesn’t really work; it’s clunky, awkward, unnatural. Imagine if you really took a child who hasn’t moved off the couch in nine years, threw a Superman costume on them, and told them to go out and solve some crime, for reals. You can’t really connect with the characters because they’re presented in a mish-mash of two different fields of being that are not properly fused. The kind of humor that makes Adventure Time and Regular Show so enjoyable is a complete suspension of reality. The viewer doesn’t need any real background story. Plot holes explained by screaming lemon kings and cats wearing boxes are okay, because non-sequitur humor is the bulk. Who cares if the main character is a bluejay or a raccoon, who cares if their friend is a walking bubblegum machine, who cares if they engage Death in a hotdog eating competition, it doesn’t matter. But here, with Steven Universe, you can’t really combine that with this world, it doesn’t work. When too much “reality” creeps into the plot, it degrades the rest, and what you end up with is a convoluted Powerpuff Girls with some updating by way of the “everyday”, which so far is just lame and provides as much emotional catharsis as The Bobbsey Twins. Of course, this isn’t to say that elevating the underdog or real life isn’t a good thing, it’s just not a new thing, and Steven Universe does absolutely nothing new with the concept. It’s largely a repackaging of countless old ideas and storytelling. In order for Steven Universe to become a legend like Adventure Time, Dexter’s Laboratory, or their ilk, it needs to realize that doing the same old with some superficial alterations isn’t going to cut it. There’s not enough depth. Getting there is going to take some serious work. Stick it out for another episode or two, and then forget it if you don’t see improvement – it likely won’t happen and you have better things to do.