When I reviewed the first season of Steven Universe, it was kind of a cop out. I had so many conflicted thoughts about the 50+ episodes that I felt unable to collect them into a coherent piece. So I just went with a simple message: “Steven Universe is more than an expression of identity politics – it’s a damn good show.” Which is true, but reductive. Watching the second season clarified for me that while everything that makes the show important – its unapologetically queer take on love and society – is integral to the quality of the show, it also tends to undercut its success as entertainment. And, arguably, its potency as an educational tool for the children for which it is (theoretically, anyway) made.
For the most part, Steven Universe operates in two modes. One is a light-hearted, silly fantasy with flashes of the nonsensical. Think a more restrained Adventure Time (an easy comparison, I’ll admit). The second mode is a full-throated exploration of adult relationships through a fantastical lens, examining the complexities of relationships, gender, sexuality and society. The insipid messages of the children’s television I grew up with – “try your best!” “everyone is special!” “be nice to others!” – are given thoughtful shading without becoming too adult or too pessimistic. The problem for me is that these two modes should intertwine and intersect, but too often are allowed to progress along parallel paths to the detriment of the series.
There are countless examples of this, but I’m going to focus on a string of episodes from the middle of the second season. The first season established Peridot (Shelly Rabara) as an ongoing antagonist, and when the second season picks up she remains M.I.A. Steven (Zach Callison) and the Crystal Gems – Pearl (Deedee Magno), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) and Garnet (Estelle) – spend much of the first half of the season trying to either find Peridot or avert her schemes. In the eleventh episode, “Cry For Help”, the Gems locate a Gem communication tower being used by Peridot to send out video signals. Garnet and Pearl ‘fuse’ together to destroy the tower and prevent the signal’s continued propagation.
Here’s where things get messy. Fusing, in the Steven Universe universe, is a multifaceted symbol of sex and commitment and relationships and identity. When two Gems fuse into one larger, more powerful Gem, it’s an expression of trust: a fusing of not physicality, but personality. Within the context of the episode, especially, it’s explicitly erotic: we’re led to understand that fusing with Garnet is something Pearl enjoys and even craves. All this is to underline the significance of the repeated fusing between Pearl and Garnet – into Sardonyx (Alexia Khadime) – to dismantle the tower again and again, presumably because Peridot is continuing to repair it. The episode concludes with the revelation that Pearl, not Peridot, is reconstructing the tower each time, driven by an insatiable desire to fuse with Garnet. Given that Pearl is primarily presented as the straitlaced goody-two-shoes, this is quite a shock.
Steven Universe should certainly be praised for how it handles the aftermath of this twist. It’s not treated as quick character moment to be forgotten at the end of the episode; rather, for the remainder of the season it lingers as a sore point between Pearl and Garnet, who feels genuinely betrayed. Without turning into an exploitative rape storyline – which naturally, wouldn’t suit a children’s cartoon – the show is still able to explore questions of consent, trust and forgiveness without offering easy answers. This is Steven Universe is capital-I Important mode, and it deserves all the credit it receives for handling such issues with maturity and originality.
There’s a “but” coming, of course.
All of this so gosh-darned earnest. It’s not fun. It’s not silly. It’s not even particularly entertaining. You could argue that’s the point. That these are serious issues that can’t afford to be taken lightly. Perhaps. But I would counter that the show’s frequent shifts into Very Special Episode mode undermine the importance of its message by, frankly, losing the interest of viewers. Despite all the bright colours and flashy inventions, it’s hard to imagine younger children engaging with this storyline when it’s handle so (comparatively) dourly. It feels pitched at leftist parents and critics rather than the target audience.
And maybe that’s fine. Maybe Steven Universe isn’t a kid’s show, and I’m misrepresenting what it’s trying to achieve. However when it embraces a spirit of fun and silliness – most notably in the deliriously absurdist crossover episode “Say Uncle”, but also in, say, most every Amethyst storyline – it shows how entertaining it could be. Many episodes hit the sweet spot of fun but meaningful, but I can’t help but think the show would be more successful if it more carefully balanced its earnestness with its silliness.
In particular, I think about friends with kids around the age that you’d expect to be watching Steven Universe, in the preteens, post-infancy bracket. Children of this age are intelligent and articulate, more so than they’re often given credit for, but they’re also learning about the rules of human society. What in one instant is harmless playing around has suddenly become unacceptable violence – a line that’s often difficult to identify for young children. It strikes me that Steven Universe would be a better show if it blurred this line more often. Rather than segregating silly and serious, identify how the two overlap in ways that aren’t always obvious or intuitive. That what might be acceptable in one circumstance or with one person is no longer acceptable somewhere else.
Well, whatever. Rebecca Sugar – the creator of Steven Universe – can choose to tell her stories as seriously as she likes. But across its many episodes, Steven Universe sometimes feels less like a Saturday morning cartoon, and more like Monday afternoon homework. I can’t help but wonder if the show could manage to be important and entertaining simultaneously, though, rather than neatly segregating these aspects.