Being born in 1991, I grew up on a lot of what many in my age group would consider to be 'classic' cartoons on Nickelodeon: Rugrats, Catdog, Angry Beavers, Invader Zim, Hey Arnold!, Rocko's Modern Life, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. Add onto those other classics, like Tiny Toon Adventures, Pinky and the Brain, and Animaniacs, and you have a good sense of the cartoons I grew up with.
Looking back, they were quite the mix of different shows. Not all of them were perfect, by any means, but I still have fond memories of watching them as a little kid. They all hold a special place in my heart as the cartoons I consider most nostalgic, along with a handful of Cartoon Network classics like Johnny Bravo, Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Powerpuff Girls, and especially the later Teen Titans - the good one, not the horrid abomination called Teen Titans Go! - and Courage the Cowardly Dog.
I loved all these shows. They made me laugh, they made me smile, they gave me something to watch on TV that I wanted to watch. They were an escape for me as a boy, and continued to be an escape when I was a pre-teen and then a teenager. Just thinking back to the days where I would watch them brings a smile to my face, but it also makes me feel a little sad inside, since nowadays, most cartoons don't have that same spark that would fill me with excitement or get me to laugh the same way what I consider to be classics did. Or at least, that's the belief I held for a good long while going into my teenage years.
Sure, I had Toonami before it got cancelled, Adult Swim had a few decent cartoons, and I acknowledge that I liked cartoons like Danny Phantom, Spongebob Squarepants, and The Fairly Oddparents. But, the enjoyment I got from those shows didn't last, since the latter two have since fallen so far into the gutter, you'd need a trash submarine to get anywhere near them, and the former was another case of a cartoon being too good to last for long. That seemed to be the case for most of the cartoons I enjoyed, in truth; they never lasted long enough, but the ones that did wound up degrading in quality. It's funny how that works.
But, that all changed when a new cartoon came into the picture four years ago in 2013. This show, Steven Universe, has become something of a pop cultural icon in many circles, and considering the fact I've been following it since it first debuted, I'm not surprised why.
Steven Universe is, without a doubt, one of the best cartoon shows I've ever seen. Is it perfect? Certainly not. Is it for everyone? Again, no, and I wouldn't expect it to be. And is every single episode an amazing masterpiece worthy of praise? No. But, when I look at the show, at the world, the characters, when I think about the themes it explores and the representation it gives, about the positive spin on old tropes that it has created to try and change a lot of what we as viewers see as the norm for cartoons and television in general, I can't help but look at Steven Universe as a crowning achievement and a scion for positive change and especially for diversity.
Why is that, you may ask?
To begin with, for those who don't watch it or who have only heard the name, the show is centered around a young boy named Steven, who lives in an alternate Earth and has a normal-enough life, minus the fact that he lives with three superhuman aliens that are basically gemstones taking human form. These beings, called the Crystal Gems, serve as Steven's family and mentors, as he is the son of their former leader, Rose Quartz and a human man named Greg. And at first, the show focused on Steven getting into trouble and making a mess of things as he tried to be a Crystal Gem, tagging along on missions with the three Gem guardians, and they are - the stoic, mysterious Garnet, the laid back, tons-of-fun Amethyst, and the semi-overprotective busybody, Pearl. And together, they fought various monsters and had adventures.
Now, if I were to leave it at that, I'm sure someone who hasn't seen the show would likely furrow their brow and wonder, 'Wait, that's it? That's the show you're going on about? It doesn't sound very good/interesting/fun/amazing.' And you would be right.
In fact, if I'm honest, a good chunk of the first season, while not terrible - to me - is actually pretty slow and somewhat drab when you compare it to the show it evolves into. This, I think, has a lot to do with the fact that Steven Universe wanted to build up to the more exciting things, and so show creator Rebecca Sugar did this by gradually introducing the characters and the lore of the world in bursts, adding in various shenanigans and humor and a somewhat annoying protagonist with an overall good heart, to keep those watching entertained until they reached the point of the show where everything we thought Steven Universe was about got turned on its head.
This happens at halfway point of the first season, twenty five episodes in for the whole fifty-two. On the one hand, after that two parter - Mirror Gem and Ocean Gem - aired, things became increasingly more interesting as the lore of the world and the characters themselves evolved miraculously, turning it from a decent-if-average Monster of the Week-based show into something so much more. On the other hand, it takes a while to get to that point, and even though the twenty four preceding episodes aren't bad - there are some real gems among them, pun only half-intended, like Giant Woman and Steven the Sword Fighter, to name two - it can still be rather irksome to slog through twenty-four okay to good episodes to reach a point where you realize there's a lot more depth to this world than at first apparent.
Still, I would be lying if I said my opinion of Steven Universe - that it was a good, but not great show - did a complete one-eighty, and I was suddenly becoming obsessed with watching it. From that point on, Steven Universe has grown to become my favorite cartoon, surpassing shows like Teen Titans that once held that honor, and in doing so, raising the bar for all future cartoon shows in the process.
But that doesn't really answer the question of why it's my favorite cartoon. What makes it so special to me, what it makes it so worth watching, why is it so popular. I can answer the first two, and the third only when related to my feelings, rather simply: it's the characters.
Yes, the show has a lot of good points to it. It's got good humor, an intriguing setup for an alternate world, the fight scenes range from fun to outright great, the animation is solid, the soundtrack is enjoyable, and there are plenty of Shout Outs and other little Easter eggs as nods to video games, shows, and anime alike. And while the lore of the Gems is fascinating, probably the second biggest draw the show has in my mind, these aren't the reasons I keep coming back. The characters are.
Steven himself is probably the best example of this. In the first season, Steven is a funny and good-natured, if somewhat obnoxious, boy trying to figure out how to help the Gems, all three of whom he admires greatly and views as his surrogate family. Unfortunately, half the time he winds up making things worse or kickstarting the problem of the episode in the first place, but as the season goes on, he starts to show he's not just The Load, that character who is more useless than useful no matter the situation.
In fact, Steven gradually matures as the show continues, and not only that, he learns to not only tap into his powers, but he's also able to gradually help more and more whenever the Gems face something dangerous. He stops being the cute-but-annoying sidekick and develops into a genuine hero who can help the Gems save the day. Sure, he makes bad decisions from time to time, and he isn't all-powerful, but these qualities help balance his development, giving him flaws to cope with in the process. These alone make Steven a solid character, but there is more under the surface.
But let's actually start with the surface: Steven doesn't look like your typical hero. He's short and chubby, he loves his donuts and his ice cream - but only Cookie Cat, thank you very much - and his primary color is the same color that represents his mother: pink. He's also a very sensitive, emotional boy, who prefers to solve problems peacefully and hates it when the people he loves are fighting. He's incredibly innocent, very sweet, and somewhat naive, but when push comes to shove, he'll always do what's right. Yet what makes him so likable and interesting isn't just that he's nice and not some macho hunk; what does are his inner struggles.
Steven goes through a lot of internal issues as the show progresses. The biggest of these is his fear and wariness of whether or not he can truly live up to his mother, the being who led the Crystal Gems, whose gem is now a part of him - just like she is, as they couldn't exist at the same time. This is further emphasized by the fact that the other Gems constantly talk about how great and inspiring Rose was, and while they don't mean it that way, these constant praises only serve to stress Steven out, as he wants to make them proud, but also to be like his mother. Adding onto this are the struggles Steven faces against the Gems who aren't Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst - you have Homeworld, Gems who seek to destroy Earth and have a vendetta against Steven and the Crystal Gems, you have the relationships he has with the normal humans in his life, and you have his strained relationship with his own mother, whom he never even got to know.
These various relationships and the effects they have on Steven create anxiety, stress, depression, sadness, and pain that cut deep into him, and the show isn't afraid to depict these things. And as someone who knows what anxiety, stress, and depression feel like, and especially as someone with body struggles and severe self-consciousness of how he looks, I may be in my twenties, but I can so easily identify with and latch onto Steven. He's the kind of character I wish I had grown up with, because I feel he could've been a genuine role model for me as a boy due to how similar we are in many ways.
That isn't even touching the wealth of development and depth that the Crystal Gems are given as we learn more about them and what their strengths and most especially their weaknesses are, or that side characters like Steven's father Greg, his friend Connie, or the other denizens of Beach City - the main setting for the show - are given. This is a show that, for whatever flaws it may possess, goes out of its way to truly develop its characters and make them the focal point of the show. And I think the best part is that, at its core, the show never demonizes the characters for their flaws or their problems. Rather, it depicts the problems and then allows the characters to deal with them, to work through them the way normal people would work through their issues.
Amethyst and Pearl both suffer from severe self-worth and self-confidence problems, resulting in Amethyst having a level of bitterness against anyone who outshows her and a genuine desire to prove herself, and gives Pearl a level of obsessiveness when it comes to feeling like she's actually worthy; Greg is presented as kind of a deadbeat when we first meet him, but when we see him and Rose falling in love, followed by the pain brought about not only by her loss but by how the Gems treat him, it becomes much clearer that he's in a rut due to how lost he feels without Rose in his life, and Garnet, for all her stoic badass-ery, both has - and is - a complex relationship fueled by love, yet even she recognizes she isn't perfect.
Ultimately, Steven Universe is a show driven by its characters, characters that may seem one note when you first watch it, but then the layers get slowly peeled back until you as the viewer realize that there is a great deal more depth to them than you might've initially expected. And all the while, you get a heavy dose of other elements pulling the show, like the comedy, the visuals, the music, and most definitely the intriguing lore. Who would've thought that a cartoon about genderless space rocks that all look female and a boy with a gemstone for a navel fighting other space rocks would've turned into such a fun, surprisingly deep show? If you had told me that when I was a teenager, I would've had a hard time believing it, but nowadays, I wish that it had existed back then.
I cannot - nor will I - say that Steven Universe is perfect. I'm not blind enough by my love for it and its characters to think it is, and while I most definitely would recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it, I would also caution them that it may not be their cup of tea/coffee/cocoa/whatever beverage they fancy, and that, to truly get what the show is about, what makes it such a great viewing experience, they would have to be patient and sit through episodes that can be a bit slow. But, no matter its problems, it represents a change of pace for cartoon shows, and I hope that in the future, more cartoons - perhaps even TV shows in general - take cues from what makes Steven Universe so amazing.
About the Creator
I am currently a student at a university, trying to find my way in life, while also trying to write a book. Lots of ideas bouncing in my head for potential articles, so we'll see how that goes. Cheers!