Steven Universe is an American animated television series created by Rebecca Sugar for Cartoon Network. It is the coming-of-age story of a young boy named Steven Universe, who lives in the fictional town of Beach City with the "Crystal Gems" – Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst, three magical humanoid aliens. Steven, who is half-Gem, goes on adventures with his friends and helps the Gems protect the world from their own kind. Sugar developed the series while working as a writer and storyboard artist on Adventure Time, and it premiered on November 4, 2013 as Cartoon Network's first animated series to be solely created by a woman.
The series has received critical acclaim for its art design, music, voice acting, characterization and its science-fantasy worldbuilding, and has a broad and active fanbase. It was nominated for two Emmy Awards and five Annie Awards. Books, comics, and a video game based on the series have been released.
Steven Universe was renewed for its fourth and fifth seasons in March 2016, and the current fourth season premiered on August 11, 2016.
Setting and synopsisEdit
The series is set in the fictional Beach City on the Delmarva Peninsula on the American East Coast, where the Crystal Gems live in an ancient beachside temple, protecting humanity from monsters and other threats. Ageless alien warriors, they project feminine humanoid forms from magical gemstones that are the core of their being. The Crystal Gems are Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl and Steven, a young half-human, half-Gem boy who inherited his gemstone from his mother, the Crystal Gems' past leader Rose Quartz. As Steven tries to figure out his gradually expanding range of powers, he spends his days with his human father Greg, his friend Connie, the other people in Beach City, or the Gems. He explores the abilities passed down to him by his mother, which include fusion—the ability of Gems to merge their bodies and abilities to form new and more powerful personalities.
The first season slowly reveals that the Crystal Gems are remnants of a great interstellar civilization. Many places they visit are ruins once important to Gem culture, but now derelict for millennia. The Gems are cut off from their homeworld, and Steven learns that many of the monsters and artifacts they encounter are Gems who, corrupted by a Gem weapon of mass destruction, can no longer maintain rational humanoid forms. In parallel, flashbacks relayed by Greg develop the history of Rose Quartz and her relationships. By the end of the first season, Steven learns that the Homeworld Gems intended to sterilize the Earth to incubate new Gems within it. Now, 5,000 years after Rose led the other Crystal Gems in a violent and apparently successful rebellion against these genocidal plans, the Homeworld's machinations once again extend towards the Earth with the arrival of two hostile envoys, Peridot and Jasper. In the second season, Peridot is forced to ally with the Crystal Gems to prevent Earth's destruction by a Gem abomination growing in the planet's core. In the third season, Peridot and Lapis Lazuli, an errant Homeworld Gem, join the Crystal Gems. Jasper is at length defeated, and Steven learns that his mother killed one of Gem society's four matriarchs, Pink Diamond.
Steven Universe has received critical acclaim, with critics praising its art, music, voice performances, storytelling, and its characterization. As an "equally rewarding watch" for adults and children, according to James Whitbrook in io9, and "one of the stealthiest, smartest, and most beautiful things on the air" in the view of Eric Thurm in Wired, it attracted a quickly growing fan base.
Critics praised the "breathtaking beauty", "intriguing, immersive environments" and "loveably goofy aesthetic" of Steven Universe's art. They noted the distinct look imparted by the soft pastel backgrounds, as well as the series's "gorgeous, expressive, clean" animation.
The chiptune-inspired music by the duo of Aivi Tran and Steven "Surasshu" Velema was also often highlighted in reviews, with Oliver Sava in The A.V. Club mentioning its range from "peppy retro" to Ghibli-esque "smooth jazz piano". The musical numbers featured in some episodes are distinguished by their "uplifting determination", according to Thurm. As Whitbrook wrote, they evolve from "little (...) goofy ditties" to become an integral part of the storytelling, with the much-lauded song performed by Estelle in the first season's finale being "a rap about the power of two women in romantic love, delivered during a fight aboard an exploding spaceship. It's as awesome as it sounds". Thurm wrote for Pitchfork that "music matters in Rebecca Sugar’s work", more than even in most musicals, by structuring the characters' lives rather than only delivering the story.
Reviewers also appreciated the voice acting of the broad ensemble cast. Tom Scharpling's Greg, Zach Callison's "exuberant and expressive" work as Steven and Grace Rolek "singing her heart out" as Connie were among the actors particularly noted for their performances.
Writing and themesEdit
Steven Universe covers a broad range of themes, including a low-key slice of life portrayal of childhood, an examination of unconventional family dynamics, and an intensive homage to anime, video games and other pop culture mainstays, as well as being a "straightforward kids' show about superheroes", according to Thurm. Jacob Hope Chapman of Anime News Network noted that the anime series Revolutionary Girl Utena and Sailor Moon are visually and structurally Steven Universe's strongest influences, as reflected in its "predominantly playful tone, interrupted by crushing drama at key moments", as well as in its "glorification of the strengths of femininity, dilution of gender barriers, and emphasis on a wide variety of relationships between women, aimed at a family audience". Other Japanese cultural icons the series references include Neon Genesis Evangelion, Akira, Cowboy Bebop and Dragon Ball Z, as well as Studio Ghibli movies and Junji Ito's horror manga The Enigma of Amigara Fault.
The series's "masterful sense of pace", wrote Whitbrook, allows the series to subtly integrate elements of foreshadowing and worldbuilding into individual scenes that almost imperceptibly make an overarching dramatic narrative emerge from what might appear to be "monster of the week" episodes. The series's conceit of telling a complex story from a child's perspective means that its exposition remains "artfully restrained, growing in ambition with the series" and Steven's character, in the view of Thurm. Steven Universe's measured pace also allows its characters to become "more complex and interesting than most of their counterparts on prestige dramas", in Thurm's view, developing "as real people and not entities serving narrative functions". The series explores increasingly challenging facets of their relationships, such as the notion that Pearl may in part resent Steven because he is why his mother Rose no longer exists, or the point where Pearl's "all-consuming passion" for Rose becomes self-destructive. Even the action showpieces are on occasion cast as philosophical arguments, such as when Estelle's song presents the climactic fight in "Jail Break" as the contest between Garnet's loving relationship and Jasper's "lone wolf" attitude.
Adams highlighted the "groundbreaking and inventive" portrayal of the complicated "mentor/caregiver/older sibling dynamic" between Steven and the Crystal Gems in a series that, at its core, is about sibling relationships, according to Sava. A notable emotional difference to Adventure Time and Regular Show, wrote Thurm, is that while these series deal with their protagonists' transition to adulthood, Steven Universe was, at least in its first season, content to be "enamored with the simplicity of childhood". Nonetheless, Thurm noted, by the first season's end, Steven had slowly grown from an obnoxious tag-along kid to being accepted as a Crystal Gem in his own right, a change brought about by increased insight and experience rather than merely age. In The Mary Sue, Joe Cain noted that unlike many heroes from antiquity (such as Hercules) to modern fiction (Luke Skywalker and others), Steven is not defined by the legacy of his father, but his mother; and that the wealth of the series' important mother figures highlights how rare they are in genre fiction. The alien nature of the Gems, which prevents them from fully understanding the world they are dedicated to protect, is also handled with "remarkable depth and intellectual rigor", according to Kat Smalley of PopMatters, even as the Gems are shown to deal with human issues such as the "depression, post-traumatic stress, and self-loathing" the long-past war for Earth has left them with.
Smalley characterized Steven Universe as a prominent part of a growing trend of intergenerational U.S. animation (i.e., cartoons that appeal to people of all ages) that also includes the series Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005), its sequel The Legend of Korra (2012), Adventure Time and Regular Show (both 2010). This is not only reflected in the series's outreach to minorities previously seldom appearing in animation, but also in its broader themes, according to Smalley – instead of delivering genre-typical mustache-twirling villains, the series "deals with issues of extraordinary violence and horror, depicts its characters in shades of grey, and subtly plays with matters of philosophy, morality, and interpersonal conflicts, all while refusing to reset any development to a status quo".
Gender and sexualityEdit
"Gender is at the forefront of the conversation surrounding Steven Universe", according to Erik Adams in the A.V. Club, who noted as remarkable that "the show's superheroes are all women". As, among other things, a self-aware pastiche of "magical girl" anime, the series subverts that genre's premises, according to Whitbrook, by having Steven, a boy, embody the loving femininity of the typical magical girl protagonist—without being mocked for it or losing his masculine side in turn. Whitbrook characterized the series as ultimately being "about love—all kinds of love", including nontraditional forms such as the both motherly and friendly bond between Steven and the Gems, as well as Garnet as the "physical embodiment of a lesbian relationship".
Autostraddle's Mey Rude wrote that Steven Universe was the most recent animated series aimed at a younger audience to feature significant representation of queer themes, such as through the androgynous fusion Stevonnie and the overtly romantic relationship between the Gems Ruby and Sapphire. This, according to Rude, reflects the growing prominence of these themes in children's cartoons: previous depictions were either subtextual or minimal, such as in the 2011 Adventure Time episode "What Was Missing" or in the 2014 series Clarence, or more explicit but unexplored, such as in the 2014 finale of Nickelodeon's The Legend of Korra. In Steven Universe, on the other hand, LGBT themes appear prominently in the second half of the first season.
According to Rebecca Sugar, her series' LGBT representation is not intended to make a point, but to help all children understand themselves and develop their identity. In her view, queer youth deserve to see themselves in stories just as much as other children—and, given pervasive heteronormativity, not allowing them to do so can be harmful. Moreover, Sugar said, LGBT children also deserve to see the prospect of love for themselves in the characters they identify with—the ideal of fulfilling partnership and true love, established as the one thing to aspire to by generations of Disney cartoons, extended to all. In 2016, Sugar said at a panel that the LGBT themes in Steven Universe were also in large part based on her own experience as a bisexual woman.
The series's cachet as "one of the most unabashedly queer shows on TV", according to The Guardian, made it all the more controversial when, in 2016, Cartoon Network UK decided to cut a moment showing a close embrace between Rose and Pearl – but not a kiss between Rose and Greg – from the British broadcast. The decision, explained by the network as intended to make the episode "more comfortable for local kids and their parents", was criticized as homophobic censorship by fans and in the media.
In awarding the series a place on the honor list of the 2015 Tiptree Award, which recognizes works of science fiction or fantasy that explore and expand gender roles, the jury wrote: "In the context of children’s television, this show deals with gender in a much more open and mature way than is typical for the genre, and has some of the best writing of any cartoon. (...) In addition to showing men and women who do not necessarily conform to standard American gender ideals, the show also gives us an agender/non-binary character and a thoughtful exploration of growing up".