In November of 2013, Cartoon Network saw the premier of a show that set a new precedent for children’s television programming: Steven Universe. In the show, gems are powerful extraterrestrial lifeforms that can take on a humanoid corporeal form, though their true gem forms will be embedded somewhere on the surface. The premise of it is deceptively simple: 13-year-old Steven Universe—a half-human, half-gem hybrid—lives with the Crystal Gems, a group dedicated to protecting planet Earth. The show follows their lives as the gems guide Steven through the world, and the discovery of his identity and powers as a hybrid. In the process, they have to deal with their pasts, which repeatedly come back to haunt them.
The show airs in addicting 11-minute episodic installments; everything about each episode is highly satisfying. The opening and closing themes are short enough, and charming enough, that it is tempting to play them on repeat. The Crystal Gems always find a way to resolve the conflict and impart morals in passing. What is especially enthralling about the show, however, is the assortment of characters. Every individual has a distinctive and realistic personality that the viewer can relate to, and the way that all of the characters interact is so delightfully realistic, beautiful, and touching that it’s fun just to watch them hang out. This high praise does come with a caveat: since it is foremost intended to be a children’s show, the pacing is much calmer than that of normal shows. It may come across as too simplistic or overly emotional for some. The art certainly isn’t the most refined; the characters are often goofy and childishly indulgent; the episodic premise of the show often means that plot progression slows to a halt; and an appetite for this show requires a certain predilection for sentimentality and leisure. If anything, it can be considered a relaxing break from all the other adrenaline-pumping shows that air nowadays.
As a work of art, Steven Universe is gorgeous. Just as many of its peers of late, it further disguises itself as a children’s show with beautifully lovable yet simple cartoon animations. Some of its peers include Avatar: The Last Airbender, Rick and Morty, and Adventure Time, all of which have proven to have much intergenerational appeal. But even though it fits perfectly into a genre of shows that breaks boundaries, Steven Universe distinguishes itself in several ways. The episodes frequently feature songs unique to the show’s soundtrack, and heed my words, these smashing tunes will blow you away. Just as simple and catchy as the other components of the show, each song is laced with emotional and moral value; once again, the childlike demeanor and sentimentality may be a deterrent for some. The voice casting includes famous talent such as Zach Callison, Estelle, and Kate Micucci; and if you really get into the show, look out for a cameo appearance from Nicki Minaj! Additionally, it happens to be Cartoon Network’s first woman-made show.
The show is also very bold, following the path that its predecessors have paved by exploring modern issues far more than any other show of its kind. Blatant LGBT relationships are confronted—as opposed to the one in The Legend of Korra, which was flimsily thrown in during the finale—and the show twists the tropes of magical girl anime and superhero stories; the main character Steven is neither female nor hypermasculine, making for a show that is refreshingly balanced and less targeted towards a specific audience. As such, it touches on a diverse range of issues. For example, the significance of gems versus humans varies by viewer: some may perceive it as the struggle with self-discovery and the hardships of gender or sexuality. On the other hand, it can also be seen as a representation of relationships and love between family, friends, and lovers. The gems themselves all take female physical forms, which normalizes gender as a non-issue for them and the viewers. Rather, they face discrimination through ranking by gem rarity, which provides a fresh parallel to human prejudice. Since the gems don’t have human labels and Steven is a hybrid, the main characters are able to explore and overcome their flaws without negative affiliation to any human stereotypes.
In the end, Steven Universe is a show for children and adults alike. It heralds the values of the twenty-first century individual: it confronts many of the conflicts that are being investigated today, and at the same time still presents the traditional values that any parent would like to instill in children, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, or stage of self-discovery. This combination of wisdom from all walks of life serves to bring everyone who watches it closer together…almost like a fusion!
If you watch the show, you just might understand the last sentence. If that in itself is not enough, take consolation in the fact that—as long as your heart isn’t made of steel—Steven Universe has something for just about everyone.