I’m a late-arriver to this Cartoon Network series which has exploded to popularity since its first season. And it has been high on my viewing list for a long time. But after diving in it is clear why this has been the talk of the town, it is a masterpiece in modern episodic television.
Which is really saying something when you consider the little golden era we have seen over the past few years on the small screen. The competition has been consistently fierce, and continuously reinventing genres. So, you might the thinking right now how on Earth can an animated kid’s show be comparable and make it onto Top Lists of modern shows? As with any other show, it is how the ingredients mix together.
The show drops the audience in amid the story, with a young 12 year old kid named Steven being part of an alien trio called the Crystal Gems, who work mostly in secret to keep the World safe from the hidden dangers they find everywhere. Their gems not only give them human-like physical form, but are the source for their super-human powers. Garnet acts as the unsaid leader of the group, Amethyst is rebellious but devoted, and Pearl is the source of reason, even if that reason is over-thought at times. The show is a coming-of-age tale following Steven’s inclusion into the group, his training to tackle the forces they must defeat, and discovering about his past which makes him half-gem, half-human.
And much in line with other CN shows like Adventure time or Regular Show, it doesn’t necessarily have a dedicated goal to aim for from the start, or follow a linear path. Each episode works primarily to tell its own tale, but with elements that bind each episode together and generate a universe for this show to settle into. And it is the manner in how this is done which makes it start off from a high quality level. You aren’t necessarily drip-fed details, or given dumps of exposition. Instead, you get pieces here and there that really make you think of their relevance, and how they alter what previous episodes played out. For example, Pearl is shown to be a little bit over-bearing towards Steven in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on. She is completely caring and yet…. something seems a little off now and then. Later on you get to see why she is this way and it completely changes how you see the interactions of both those characters. The progression feels earned and genuine. And during the early episodes of Season One, it was these inclusions which made me sit up and take notice.
Of course, all the aspects from a good kid’s show are here too. The setting is unique but familiar, the characters have brilliantly developed levels of personality, the lead of Steven is perfectly written, and the mix of comedy, drama, and action is balanced exceedingly well. Steven is that kind of over-enthusiastic kid that you could never dislike – he has so much yet to know but he takes every opportunity to try his best and do the right thing. So it is his mistakes rather than the few occasions of success that really help him develop and move forward. The Crystal Gems make you wonder how the holy hell would they ever get on at all, their personalities can clash against each other in the most horrific of ways, and sometimes hilarious too. There’s rarely a dull moment between them to be had, that makes even seeing them do mundane “Alien forms trying to make sense of human stuff” is hugely entertaining. The cast of side characters is surprisingly smaller than I was expecting, but work very well in giving the town a sense of self. They’re all well defined to give episodes focussing a little on them, or including them, keeping things fresh and new from episode to episode.
In technical terms there’s even more to praise. The animation style is pleasing right from the opening intro, the lines are relatively basic and simple, but set against some gorgeous background art they really take life. It feels like the team was aiming for giving the scenes more of a sense of emotion than detail, letting you immerse yourself into the story rather than just admire it from outside the panel. I find it a difficult aspect to describe perfectly since I’m not saying the animation is “plain”. Far from it, but the focus is shifted to other key areas.
The same can be said for the voice work. The voices aren’t anything spectacular, but they are perfectly cast and defined by the character traits they work around. Once again, it didn’t feel like a pursuit of the top shelf of voice acting, but they knew exactly what they wanted and worked to aim at that instead. For a show like this, it is the right thing to do.
Okay, I’ve spent enough time dancing around the biggest talking point, so let’s just go right in. Everything I’ve brought up sets this show to be of a very, very good quality. Not great, but worth keeping up with for sure. Season One sprinkles in some big story twists that indeed shake up how you perceive the world it is set in, and gives emotional arcs that you can spend a good amount of time mulling over and viewing from different angles. I hugely admired all of this, but wondered, where was this going?
Well, the double-episode finale to Season One offers an uppercut that rocketed everything into the thin dizzying air of brilliance. The items that were teased or built up upon are given some amazing expansion, and the reveal in relation to Garnet is so incredible, it is a moment in television that will be hard to forget. And no, this isn’t any kind of teasing of minute details, this is some big shit being swung your way and your peripheral vision wasn’t even ready to predict. And the way in which Season Two continued to build upon these reveals, more accurately define Steven’s character, as well take some BIG fucking risks that other animated shows would never even dream of putting in, had me floored.
What started as a very fun and entertaining cartoon now has evolved into being essential TV, regardless of the animation that some may point at and say “isn’t real television”. The incredible character development and paths that are taken, the fizzy comedy, beautiful animation style, fast paced action sequences, endearing coming-of-age story, the voice acting, and hell, the GREAT songs, all fuse into something that is so much better than the sum of the components. I never thought I would say this, but we have a show that is at the very least (so far), on par with the modern benchmark that is “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. That’s right, I went and said it, and I adore that show.
“Steven Universe” has all the makings of being, forgive the pun, an absolute gem of a show. Even if from here the story doesn’t keeping ramping it up in a rising curve it will still easily make my Top Five animated shows of all time. It is crisp and a joy to watch, but most of all…. it is a beautiful, beautiful story.
Thanks for reading!