December 22nd, 2015

wood cat

Steven Universe (recommendation post)

Okay, having seen this morning that Steven Universe will be returning with new episodes on January 4, it's time to bang out a recommendation post, because it's under 14 hours long to date (74 11-minute episodes) and some of you might be in a position to binge-watch it before it returns.

Steven Universe is an animated TV show, currently a little before the halfway mark of its second season, that has slowly built a world full of complex and wonderful characters (who are also notably diverse on multiple axes), speculative-fictional goodness, joy, and really great songs. (The highest compliment I can give it is that it keeps swapping with Hamilton as my earworm.)

Note: I'm going to talk spoilers for one thing at the end of this post, because it's the kind of thing that will be an enticement for many of you; I'll cut-tag it and label it in the post, but scroll with caution if you're coming from a direct link and not reading with cut-tags.

Let's start with our main characters, the Crystal Gems (image source):

In the center is our title character, Steven Universe. Left to right are Pearl, Amethyst, and Garnet. The latter three are not human; you can see Pearl's gem on her forehead and Amethyst's peeking out of the top of her tank top, and they're all holding the weapons they can summon from their gems (spear, whip, and gauntlets). Steven is half-human, half-Gem; his mom was Rose Quartz, the leader of the Crystal Gems, who decided to create a child with a human (Greg, Steven's dad) and gave up her own existence to pass her gem on to Steven. As the show opens, Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst are raising Steven and teaching him to use his gem powers (Greg is still present, too).

As I said, this is a show that does what I think of as half-length episodes, approximately 11 minutes each. Basically there's no B or C plot: every episode is just one thing. This took some getting used to for me, particularly because Steven Universe is building a web of a lot of different things: the Crystal Gems and their personalities, relationships, and powers; an entire town's worth of secondary characters; and SFF worldbuilding spanning literally thousands of years. Before I really understood that and appreciated the effect, I would sometimes get impatient with an episode that wasn't about what I wanted at the moment. Fortunately, they're 11 minutes long, so the impatience never lasted long enough to be a deterrent (with one exception I'll discuss later). But the resulting complexity works for me on both intellectual and emotional levels.

This is particularly true of the characters, who are just SO GREAT: fascinating and flawed and sympathetic and ever-more-layered. And, also, pretty darn refreshing from a "not all about the straight white dudes" perspective. Three of the four Crystal Gems are female (and while they are visibly not human, though it may not come across well in this picture, all their voice actors are women of color). Steven's best friend is Connie Maheswaran; one of the families in town is Ghanaian/Ghanaian-American; there is a canon f/f romantic relationship that is unquestionably the healthiest on the show; at least one more character is queer, and a minor character is reasonably interpreted as genderqueer. Also, all the parental issues are mommy issues instead of daddy issues, which I appreciate.

(I have seen some people comment about transphobia. Googling suggests this is based on a man-in-a-dress bit from the crossover episode "Say Uncle," which I highly recommend you skip because it is just PAINFUL—I didn't twig the image myself because I was resolutely stitching and not looking up during the entire episode—the humor is entirely incompatible and basically it's the worst. I am one million percent not the arbiter of what's transphobic and what's not, but I should note that there's a later episode in which Steven wears a dress and is really happy about it, and so is everyone around him.)

I'm being really oblique with a lot of this, for the benefit of people who enjoy watching things unfold on their own; but if I had to describe Steven Universe's topic in one sentence, I would say it is about connections: the benefits of reaching out (this is basically Steven's superpower), the strength that can be gained from healthy connections, the damage that can be caused by unhealthy ones.

Before I talk spoilers, a note on viewing order: Cartoon Network moved a few episodes from the end of season one into season two, which doesn't work super-well. "Open Book", "Shirt Club," and "Story for Steven" should all go immediately after "Rose's Scabbard," in that order. (Also, Cartoon Network airs episodes in really weird chunks; it's been on hiatus for three months at a spot that's nothing like a natural pause point. Apparently this is a thing they do.)

Oh, almost forgot: both SteelyKid and the Pip were way into this for a while—it recorded accidentally in place of a Teen Titans Go! episode—so I jumped on it and started showing them it in order, but the Pip got bored somewhere in season one, because he is four. SteelyKid is still watching intermittently, though.

Okay, here we go with the spoilers for something at the end of season one—it's not all of season one or even all of how season one ends, but it's enough context to appreciate this incredibly awesome song that I am going to embed behind the cut as well.

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A spoileriffic post follows.

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wood cat

Steven Universe (spoiler burbling)

And now the post where I dump out as many spoiler-filled burbles about Steven Universe as I can before I have to faceplant into bed. (If you don't care about spoilers, I embed my second-favorite song in this post too.)

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And a poll, because why not. Let's rate songs!

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Contribute whatever else you want to talk about, I want all the discussion!

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