Image: Steven Universe (Cartoon Network)

None of Steven Universe’s Beach City characters have had arcs as complete as Lars and Sadie. Lars, grumpy and distant because he was afraid to try anything or appear vulnerable, has become a daring, confident space captain willing to engage in dangerous missions. Sadie, originally a wallflower smothered by her mother and incapable of standing up for herself, has discovered the confidence to pursue her artistic talent and to set boundaries in her family. I’m excited for their reunion once the Sun Incinerator finally makes it back to Earth—a moment that has had as much buildup on the show as any Diamond revelation—but in the meantime, Sadie has to become a rock star.

“The Big Show” is framed as a movie made by Steven on Greg’s camcorder, as a sort of early documentary so that the footage can be repurposed once the band makes it big. (When Jenny asks why he’s using such outdated technology, Steven says, “These are your early days, the footage has to look old.”) We know that Sadie Killer And The Suspects are going to be at least relatively successful (Sadie, at least, has earned it), and storyboard artists and writers Hilary Florido and Amber Cragg wring a ton of humor out of the impending arc of the successful band. In particular, there’s an incredible moment where Buck lays out the entire Behind The Music episode: “And so it begins: Our rise to stardom, followed by the inevitable infighting and creative disagreements that will tear us apart in a beautiful explosion of emotions.” Greg, comfortably placed on a beanbag chair to watch them play live, replies, “Don’t worry, that won’t happen,” to which Buck responds, despondent, “Aw, shoot.”

Greg, in fact, becomes the band’s manager, which is, all things considered, not a bad use of his money. He gets them a gig in Empire City using his old music industry connections and tells them to go all out, buying a bunch of lasers and a top of the line fog machine so that their performance can be as spooky and spectacular as possible. (Also, he literally does the Back To The Future “listen to this” bit, holding his phone up to the other phone to play an insanely distorted recording of the band, which is very funny and a great little goofy moment for Tom Scharpling.) He also plays a pivotal role in the emotional arc of the episode, as Sadie learns to accept—and even, shockingly, want—her mother’s presence in her life.

It’s totally understandable that Sadie would keep Barb at bay, since she’s a teenager and her mom can be pretty overbearing. But, as Greg points out, it’s kind of amazing that Barb even wants to be a part of her daughter’s music career. The unseen DeMayo family maintained that Greg was throwing his life away as Mr. Universe, which is part of the reason Steven doesn’t know most of the members of his extended human family, and perhaps a much more relatable situation for lots of kids with creative aspirations—a dose of perspective that helps Sadie appreciate what she has in Barb. It helps that she’s now confident enough to carve out defined boundaries for her mom. Kate Micucci does pretty fantastic work here on the band’s van ride back to Beach City, letting Sadie’s indignant, instinctive dismissive response toward the idea of Barb being at the show soften into a genuine recognition that she is fond of and loves her mom.

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The band’s performance in Empire City is a huge success, in part because Sadie thinks that a woman in the crowd is Barb and tries her best to impress her mother. But she turns out to be Greg’s music industry friend Sunshine Justice, voiced by Joan Jett, of all people. (This is a great little cameo, and one that as best I can tell hasn’t been heavily marketed or telegraphed by Cartoon Network at all, which is wild.) Sunshine Justice is a huge fan of Sadie Killer And The Suspects, as she should be—it’s true that this is an animated band (which is to say, they’ll be as good as the artists and the show’s songwriters can make them), but their show is still pretty wild. We mostly see them perform a new song, “G-G-G-Ghost,” with music and lyrics by Rebecca Sugar, Jeff Liu, and Ben Levin (who also plays organ and bass).

“G-G-Ghost” is a lot of fun—it’s not quite “The Working Dead” for how purely it gets across the spooky vibe of the band, but it’s still a lot of fun, especially with the stage show element of Sadie wearing a ghost costume, flinging glitter in the face of the stoic members of the band. The metaphor of the ghost standing in for an unseen, seemingly invisible teen isn’t necessarily new, but it works spectacularly in this format—and it clarifies one of the things I love most about Sadie Killer And The Suspects: This story is about teens discovering how to use supernatural metaphors to talk about their own problems, rather than an adult writer slotting teens into supernatural stories to make the point for them.

The performance aspect of “The Big Show,” along with the subtle emotional shift in Sadie’s relationship with Barb, works wonders in the documentary format—even with minimal Steven. The episode captures a sort of accidental intimacy in a way that feels a bit more unguarded than the way the show usually handles these kinds of moments, straight-on. Florido and Cragg infuse the rest of the episode with a lot of attention to small details, like Sadie remembering to turn off the mic before she lets it roll across the stage. That moment, along with the rest of the episode, has a sort of valedictory feel to it, a sense that Sadie isn’t quite the insanely talented, hyper-confident, emotionally open adult she’s going to be become—but she’s well on her way.

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