The Crystal Gems may not technically be Steven Universe’s sisters, but at its core, this show is about sibling relationships. In a New York Times piece on rising animators, creator/executive producer Rebecca Sugar detailed her approach to the titular hero: “I tried to make the character like [my brother], where you’re so comfortable in your life because you get all the attention, but you also want to rise up and not be the little brother.” That idea is in full force in this week’s two episodes, the first of which looks at Steven trying to impress his older, cooler female mentors while the second shows Steven struggling to achieve some together time with women who have more important things to do than hang out with a little kid.
As the younger brother to two older sisters, I fully understand the scenario that Sugar describes in the above quote, which is probably why this show captivates me so much. It also helps that this is one incredibly gorgeous cartoon. This past weekend, I saw an ad for Steven Universe play at a movie theater and was astonished by the beauty of the show’s rich color palette and smooth hand-drawn animation on the big screen. The softness of the chalky pastel backgrounds gives the series a look that is distinct from the usual Cartoon Network output, the character designs are full of personality, and the intriguing, immersive environments are the kinds of places that I can’t wait to visit every week. (I’m particularly smitten with the look of the Crystal Temple, designed by the brilliant Guy Davis, illustrator of comic books like The Marquis, Sandman Mystery Theatre, and B.P.R.D., and a creature designer for Pacific Rim.)
Considering Sugar’s experience on Adventure Time, it’s understandable why Steven Universe is drawing comparisons to Pendleton Ward’s cartoon phenomenon, but the two shows are drastically different. Adventure Time is a sprawling fantasy that introduces a slew of new ideas in every episode (the first season in particular had the writers throwing tons of random material on screen to see what would stick), whereas Steven Universe is a much more intimate, focused look at a specific family dynamic. Beyond the brief appearance of a postman at the start of “Cheeseburger Backpack,” the only characters that appear in these two episodes are Steven and the Crystal Gems, making Beach City feel like a much more insular world than Ooo.
I expect the show to explore more of this setting and its inhabitants as it continues, and frankly, it’s nice to see the show spend so much time fleshing out the relationship between Steven and the Crystal Gems. The first episode of the night, “Cheeseburger Backpack,” is a great little story about the Gems helping Steven develop as a hero, taking him with them on a journey to restore the decaying Lunar Sea Spire by placing a statue of the Moon Goddess at the top of the structure. Steven has his cheeseburger-shaped novelty backpack to aid in their quest, a receptacle full of pockets perfect for holding objects like sweaters, bagel sandwiches, inflatable rafts, and a Mr. Queasy talking stuffed toy.
As the gang makes its way up the spire, they learn that sometimes, a child’s simple point of view can solve problems more quickly than a more complicated plan, although Steven’s success ratio isn’t perfect. What matters is that the Crystal Gems are starting to trust Steven to handle himself without needing to guide him every step of the way. They’re hesitant to let Steven cross a vortex using two sweaters tied together, but when his idea works, the girls get across using a similar strategy. And after Steven distracts a group of crystal shrimp with bagel sandwiches to clear a path, the Crystal Gems decide to let the little guy and his cheeseburger backpack lead them the rest of the way. Unfortunately, that’s also when his luck runs out.
Steven’s raft is perfect for crossing a raging waterfall, but it floats away before the group can get on top of it, and when they get to the top of the spire, Steven realizes that in the rush of packing, he forgot the Moon Goddess statue on his bed. He tries to use his Mr. Queasy doll as a replacement, but it doesn’t work and ends up blowing up what is left of the already decrepit Lunar Sea Spire. The most impressive thing about “Cheeseburger Backpack” is that Steven fails to save the day, but that’s not really a problem. The Crystal Gems are incredibly supportive of his efforts and applaud his 50 percent success ratio, which is pretty good all things considered. There’s a real sense of love and understanding that the girls share for Steven, so when he screws up, they’re more concerned with making him feel better than berating him. What’s important is that he tried, and he’ll only become a stronger adventurer with their encouragement.
While “Cheeseburger Backpack” is largely focused on developing Steven’s character, “Together Breakfast” offers more insight into the personalities of the Crystal Gems, specifically Pearl and Amethyst. When Steven makes a breakfast he wants to share with the girls, he travels inside the Crystal Temple to get the group together and discovers how they live when they’re not around him. A person’s bedroom says a lot about her personality, and Pearl’s pristine room full of glistening fountains and organized weaponry is a stark contrast to the total mess of Amethyst’s living quarters. The sibling dynamic comes through stronger in this second episode, showing Amethyst and Pearl’s argument about Pearl’s things ending up in Amethyst’s bedroom and Amethyst’s frustration over having her system of controlled chaos interrupted by Pearl’s cleaning. And then there’s Steven, the little brother who won’t stay out of their rooms no matter what they say to dissuade him.
It’s disappointing that Garnet doesn’t participate in any of this domestic drama, as she’s responsible for destroying a black-light poster that contains a dangerous smoke monster within. Of the three Crystal Gems, Garnet is the least developed at this point, serving as the stoic badass of the trio that gets a lot of great one-liners, but not much in the way of emotional growth. Estelle is doing great voice work for the character, and I can’t wait until she gets the chance to sing, but I’d like to see Garnet get the same amount of personal attention as the other Crystal Gems. (It doesn’t help that the character’s eyes are covered, which limits her range of expressions.)
While “Cheeseburger Backpack” is relatively light on action, “Together Breakfast” explodes into a manic free-for-all after the smoke monster escapes from Garnet’s grip, gaining incredible power when it possesses Steven’s pancake/syrup/popcorn/whipped cream/strawberry concoction. It’s a dynamic sequence that shows how well this show can handle a devastating fight, and it’s easy to understand why the characters would lose their appetite when they try to recreate Steven’s initial breakfast idea after getting their butts whooped by the first one. “It did try to kill us,” Garnet says as they stare at the stack of carbs, deciding that they should probably just order a pizza instead. Whether they’re eating pancakes, pizza, or bagel sandwiches, if this group is together, they can count on me coming back next week to spend more time with them. Steven Universe is one of the strongest, most confident cartoon debuts in recent memory, and tonight’s two episodes show that Rebecca Sugar and the rest of the creative team have more great things in store.
- Here’s an awesome Tumblr post showcasing Guy Davis’ production art for the Crystal Temple. What an incredibly striking place for these characters to call home.
- This show’s theme song is one hell of an earworm. I find myself humming it constantly. In fact, this show’s entire soundtrack is great, from the peppy retro music playing while Steven makes breakfast (with a dubsteb breakdown for the strawberry on top) to the smooth jazz piano music giving me warm Studio Ghibli feelings when Steven rides a waterfall from Pearl’s bedroom to Amethyst’s.
- I love the idea of a stuffed animal that complains when you touch it, like a Bizarro Tickle Me Elmo. How many toys tell you about their medical condition?
- “Everything’s a pocket! Even the cheese is a pocket!”
- “It’s not exactly healthy but it’s in a stack. So I guess you could say it’s a ‘balanced breakfast.’”
- “I can’t let this become together brunch.”
- “Now it has all the power of a breakfast. We have to destroy it.”
- If you want to see regular coverage of Steven Universe, let us know via comments and social media. If there’s enough interest, it’s very possible this show could become a T.V. Club fixture.