Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The latest original animated series from Cartoon Network, Steven Universe blurs a lot of lines: the lines dividing fantasy and reality, and the lines between traditional American cartoons and artier fare from overseas. Most crucially, with its focus on an excitable young protagonist (Zach Callison) living with a trio of superpowered guardians of humanity, the show obliterates the artificial barriers that distinguish “TV for boys” and “TV for girls.”
Gender is at the forefront of the conversation surrounding Steven Universe: The show’s debut makes former Adventure Time hand Rebecca Sugar the first woman to have her name—and her name alone—on the “created by” line of a Cartoon Network original. It’s a qualified feat, but one that matters: Somehow, it’s taken 19 years for the cable outlet that brought The Powerpuff Girls into the world to present a cartoon that isn’t the sole creation of a dude. Even more so than My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic and its following of grown-up Bronies, Sugar’s show busts up the Happy Meal dichotomy dominating children’s programming: Pink, fluffy stuff for a female audience, macho beat-’em-ups for the males.
But too great a focus on those external factors threatens to eat away at the underpinnings of Steven Universe, which has no use for terms like “masculine” or “feminine.” No use for divisions of any kind, really: The citizens of the show’s main setting, Beach City, readily accept the fantasy-world funny business going on around them at all times. For some—like the eponymous hero’s main tormentor, doughnut-shop manager Lars (Matthew Moy)—the heroics of Steven and the Crystal Gems have even creeped into the realm of nuisance. Here, Steven Universe feels like TV’s answer to Wreck-It Ralph or the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, mimicking the atmosphere (and, in the case of its chiptune-inflected soundtrack, the sound) of a vintage video game, while treating gem-based weaponry and city-destroying enemies as aspects of everyday life.
In this regard, the show has an obvious Cartoon Network precursor in the aforementioned Powerpuff Girls, in which three pint-sized heroes regularly dragged the city of Townsville back from the brink of destruction for six seasons (and a movie). And like Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles, each of the Crystal Gems arrives on the scene with personality intact: refined leader Pearl (Deedee Magno), impulsive firecracker Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), and stoic warrior Garnet (Estelle). It’s not only remarkable that the show’s superheroes are all women—it’s remarkable that Steven looks up to them in the way he does, with a mixture of admiration and envy. (Also remarkable: That he too possesses the source of their powers, a precious stone embedded in his body.) That’s where Steven Universe generates its most groundbreaking and inventive material, exploring the mentor/caregiver/older sibling dynamic the protagonist has with each of the Gems—an aspect that’s bound to get complicated (and weird) if the show ever delves into the deeper connection implied between Callison and Dietz’s characters.
Beyond that thrilling thematic foundation, the show is as funny and warm as any work from a creator with Sugar’s background should be. Steven Universe doesn’t have the idiosyncratic and non sequitur-heavy vocabulary of Adventure Time, but Steven’s enthusiasm and the characteristic quirks of the Gems—Garnet especially—make for big laughs. That sense of humor is bolstered by the breathtaking beauty Sugar and her team have invested in the show’s setting. For a city accustomed to explosions and acid-spewing insect monsters, Beach City is quite the sight to behold, all purple sunsets, sweeping mountain fortresses, and badass airbrushed vans. Steven’s coming-of-age arc, sweet as it is, comes off like standard fare—but as the refrain of the premiere goes, “If every pork chop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs.”
Steven Universe’s premiere boasts many more pork chops than hot dogs—particularly in its second half, “Laser Light Cannon,” which hints toward the show’s larger mythology and introduces Steven’s father, Greg Universe (Tom Scharpling, who should do more work like this if he’s truly putting The Best Show to bed). The show arrives with a strong voice and a world that begs to be built out—what assures its success or its failure will be what it says with that voice. If it continues in frequently hilarious, subtly revolutionary style laid out in the show’s premiere, Steven Universe is on its way to becoming something special, a show that’s inviting to viewers regardless of gender, age, or any of the other social constructs Beach City gets along just fine without.