Idiot Box: Sci-Fi Gets Sugar-Coated In Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe”

“Steven Universe” On Cartoon Network

Devin D. O'Leary
3 min read
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Over the years Cartoon Network has patronized some of the industry’s best creators/animators (Genndy Tartakovsky of “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Samurai Jack,” Craig McCracken of “Powerpuff Girls” and “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends,” Pendleton Ward of “Adventure Time”). You can now add to that fine list the name of Rebecca Sugar, whose addictive new cartoon “Steven Universe” debuted last month.

“Steven Universe” is the first Cartoon Network Studios show created by a woman. But Sugar is no stranger to cartoon lovers. She was a writer and storyboard artist on “Adventure Time,” writing most of the songs (“Bacon Pancakes” anyone?) and penning some of the best episodes. While her absence on “Adventure Time” will surely be felt, her new venture proves she’s going to have a long and fruitful career in animation.

“Steven Universe” is a wonderful, faded-candy-wrapper-colored sci-fi show about a chubby young boy named Steven. Steven’s mom was one of the Crystal Gems, a group of intergalactic female warriors who use the power of special gem stones embedded in their bodies to protect the universe. Mom apparently died giving birth to Steven, gifting him with her magical rose quartz. One day the three remaining Crystal Gems (Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl) show up on Earth looking for Steven. He becomes the oddball fourth member of this super group, and they become de facto mothers, teachers and older siblings to our plucky protagonist. Steven isn’t particularly smart or strong or anything else out of the ordinary. But he’s a good kid. And that counts for a lot in this universe.

The show has a cheerful, distinctive look. The heavily detailed but highly cartoonish art style looks like a cross between the old “Schoolhouse Rock” shorts and some long-lost ’70s anime series. The tone is occasionally serious, but the overall feeling is one of happiness and optimism. Steven’s dad, for example, is portrayed as a failed, middle-aged musician who lives in his van. Combined with his dead spouse and his receding hairline, he makes for a fairly dark character. And yet, Greg Universe comes across as an undaunted dreamer, the perfect role model for our young hero. The Crystal Gems are also an interesting construct. Each represents a self-consciously different “type.” Garnet is a tough-talking Amazonian. Pearl is a willowy perfectionist. Amethyst is short, round and carefree. With a few simple strokes of her pen, Sugar has created a plethora of female body images rarely seen on TV.

What’s best about “Steven Universe” is that it never preaches out loud. Its stories are fun and adventurous. And yet, it has boatloads to say about gender, age, family, heroism and plain old boring everyday life on planet Earth. Hell, the show isn’t even afraid to let its main character fail every once in a while. Sugar throws in the occasional inspirational song (frequently performed on ukulele), adding to the goofy good nature of it all. Aimed at preteens, but easily beloved by cartoon aficionados of any age, “Steven Universe” is one of the strongest animated debuts in many a moon. And possibly your next TV obsession.

“Steven Universe” airs every Monday at 6pm on Cartoon Network.

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