Hiatuses withstanding, Steven Universe is trudging through its fourth season now, full of adventurous twists like Pearl getting a girlfriend who looks like Rose, Garnet singing another song about feelings, the Gems buying Greg a pack of adult diapers, Onion having friends… one of whom is named Garbanzo, yeah, I can’t hold up the facade any longer. Steven Universe has been challenging for me. Not emotionally challenging like “Oh, Peridot doesn’t know how to fit in with human society. My feels!” or stimulating, but annoying. I’ve been annoyed by the show lately, believing many of the show’s distinctive quirks have become its greatest flaws. Not to say I hate the show now, but somewhere along the line the show felt less about an interesting story with multifaceted characters, and more of a plotless trawl where the characters do nothing but be irritating for ten minutes a pop.
One of my issues began with how the plotline about the Cluster and the Gem drills was resolved, all within a single episode just by Steven talking the Cluster into not destroying itself. Yeah, the show’s message is to negotiate with and befriend your enemies instead of resorting to violence, but in one episode? In a ten-minute episode? And instead, that portion of the season was dedicated to Lapis and baseball? The show espouses so many morals about life and love, yet it focuses very little on the precious lesson of “destroying the world would suck”. Alternatively focusing on the same get-along messages that have been repeated out of Steven’s mouth since season 1. It feels like a show so confident in its single view, yet too scared to express anything more advanced or perhaps even question its own ideas. Like how fusion is presented as a beautiful and romantic thing, even when raising uncomfortable questions like Steven and Amethyst fusing into Smoky Quartz. Not to judge, but Amethyst is basically Steven’s big sister. No one’s gonna question that? No one’s going to question how the resolution to Amethyst’s arc about feeling useless is “Hey, let’s boink and turn into a fat black lady”? That’s almost as tactful as having a bee make love to someone’s arm stump to regrow their limb. I know, I know, show aimed at small children. But there are already enough TheMarySue articles and Jon McIntosh videos hailing Steven Universe as a holy grail transcending demographics. When Steven Universe is heralded by adult fans as some shining example of modern storytelling, then it must also be held under the level of skepticism its hubris suggests.
In example, for how every “Message Received” or “Jail Break” airs, there will always be a dozen episodes like “Kiki’s Pizza Delivery Service” and “Onion Gang” and “Steven Floats” and so on. Any brilliance from the show is only captured fleetingly, less metaphorical gems in the show’s rough than the literal ones in-universe. One can argue these lesser episodes are for world-building purposes, but the show’s dramatic moments aren’t going to impact me more just because I know who everyone in Beach City is. If anything, I probably care less about them the more the show focuses on their daily lives. The episode about Buddy’s book didn’t teach me anything other than that humans were mostly boorish and unadventurous unless Rose Quartz hangs out with them. I already know that. The show makes great pains to make sure I know that.
And that’s what makes the Stevenbombs sting the most. They’re five-episode portions where only one episode is actually important to watch. Imagine getting an episode of your favorite 50-minute show once in a blue moon, and most of it’s filler. That’s what Stevenbombs more often than not feel like. Like a long trudge through a salad bar where only one tray has anything delicious let alone appetizing. I know these are meant to be the funny, goof-off, slice of life episodes, but Steven Universe is just awful at being funny. I’ve never laughed at a single joke the show’s had to offer. I always found the show more determined when it’s spent working on lore and plot-driven work, whereas its comedy often felt tired and half-assed. No set-up or wit, just characters being weird for the sake of it like quirkiness in itself is a laugh riot. But it’s not funny, and only serves to encapsulate the main cast in their own bubble.
Take “Gem Harvest” for example. Much of the episode’s spent on the Gems being goofy and high-fiving each other while Uncle Andy’s sitting there being alienated and belittled for not being like Greg or Steven. As if we’re supposed to laugh at Andy for being too narrow-minded to accept the Gems at first, but my sympathies sided with Andy for the most part. Take a walk into his shoes, where he meets up with his cousin for the first time in ages only to find out he changed his last name to “Universe”, is friends with multicolored women who claim to be aliens, had a child and didn’t tell the rest of the family, etc. Who in that position would accept all of that? If I were Andy, I would have assumed Greg had joined a cult. But the show never shifts the view to that stance, only focusing on how Steven and the Crystal Gems are trying to accept having a less broad-minded family member for Thanksgiving, almost as if he were a lesser creature they had to civilize. Never a moment of introspection, just blind pity poorly disguised as genuine sympathy.
These show’s attempts at emotion just baffle me at times. Occasionally, they can be touching like when Ruby and Sapphire first fused or that time Amethyst goes to the Kindergarten, but they’re otherwise often full of themselves and one-sided. Moments that don’t hit properly because of lack of nuance or melodrama. I remember an anecdote from Warren Ellis about how he had to drop Battlestar Galactica because he was sick of every plot progression moment involving a character crying. And Steven Universe does just that, with nothing but crying, singing, and everything except for subtlety. I could deal if it was just occasional crying, but it’s like Niagara Falls at times. As if the writers and animators think adding more crying makes the scenes more profound, but they don’t. The show’s attempts at emotional depth aim to be Mr. Rogers but land on Barney and Friends. No unique insight that holds onto your long after the program’s over, but sap like Garnet’s song about breathing.
Many of the recent “sad” moments like Amethyst feeling a lack of self-worth or Steven feeling guilt over poofing Bismuth don’t feel earned. As if they expect you to instantly feel bad for the characters rather than trying to win us over. I know it’s a personal bias, but why should I feel bad for Steven? He’s an annoying kid who thinks singing songs and get-along messages are the best ways to make the world better, which could be better handled with other characters, but badly executing those traits usually results in either loathsome hippie or Kira Yamato. And Amethyst? Remember when she traumatized a still-grieving Greg by transforming into Rose Quartz, and all she got in response was having to clean the garage? The show may well be portraying its characters as morally gray, but it does precious little in doing that throughout, with a seeming “forgive and forget” tone for every time a character does something reprehensible. Oh, Pearl lied about Peridot contacting the Homeworld Gems and risking the world’s safety all to fuse with Garnet on a regular basis? Let’s forget that after a couple Stevenbombs. After all, we can forget about Pearl having to understand that wanting to boink Rose Quartz does not need to be a must for her life and that she can find other pursuits, only to be smitten with a mystery girl who just happens to resemble her Lenore. Let’s just applaud and commend the crew for offering us simple viewers another ship, and not question how Pearl is yet again trapped in her shallow romantic mentality despite several episodes asking her to develop beyond her attachment to others.
Or we could turn this series into yet another shipping show, because that surely worked for Legend of Korra and Gravity Falls. Wasn’t the allure in either of those shows rooted in whether Korra would snog Asami, or Dipper finally realizing that love transcends flesh and blood? Most western animation, most western media, most media, most of civilization, most of the world, most of the known existence has trouble grappling with romance, with most writers assuming romance should interrupt the tension of the rest of the plot than flow naturally alongside it. To Steven Universe’s credit, it can occasionally do romance well. I can believe how Rose and Greg became a couple, and be able to understand Ruby and Sapphire’s chemistry. But then I get shit like Lapidot, Sadie and Lars, or how Malachite was actually an abusive dom/sub relationship between Lapis and Jasper, and I just look away and wonder if the show knows what it’s doing. It’s poorly executed. Comes out of nowhere, with as much care and awareness as that Captain Planet episode about the Middle East conflict. But shipping’s what the fans want, so shipping’s what the creators make. What used to be interesting every once in a while has now become indulgent. So in your face about how in love all the characters are with each other, that I just want to barf. Go on, have a smooch, talk about your feelings occasionally, but don’t let it take over the entire show. Then it becomes just as annoying as having to watch real life people gush about how much they love each other.
But don’t take this as barely-concealed hatred for Steven Universe, because I do enjoy the show when it’s focused. All elements of the show are their best when they focus more on the cosmic than on the mundane, more on the turmoil of the Gem War, less on whatever goes on in Beach City. The Crewniverse or what other cutesy nickname they’re given nowadays, they do much better within the realm of fairy tales than in slice-of-life. We already have more than enough hiatuses to take a breather from the plot. We don’t need the show itself to lose its head and wander in circles. It’s okay if you want to be goofy or silly, but have a point to it all or I may as well be watching the recent seasons of Adventure Time. And God knows nobody wants a show they like to turn into that.