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A Beginner’s Guide to the Emmy-Nominated Steven Universe

These 10 episodes will woo even the most skeptical of viewers

Steven-Universe
Steven Universe (Cartoon Network)
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    Five seasons in, Steven Universe is a full-on TV nerd obsession. It has a devoted fandom, it’s been nominated for the Outstanding Short Form Animation Emmy the past three years running, and the finale of its recent Steven Bomb (a set of episodes aired daily over at least a week) was one of cable’s highest-rated episodes the night it aired. Yet, as an animated series of 11-minute shows centered on a young teen and his adventures with his super-powered alien family and friends, it’s often dismissed by those unfamiliar as a run-of-the-mill kids’ show and still struggles to break through with mainstream critics and audiences.

    Steven Universe is an absolutely beautiful series. It has gorgeous animation, moving themes and writing, lovely voice work and music, and exciting action set-pieces. It tells the story of Steven Universe, a half-human, half-Gem (read: alien) boy growing up in Beach City with his father, his adoptive aunts (also Gems), and his friends. Steven and his aunts, the Crystal Gems, defend the Earth from invaders and work to unravel and recover from the trauma of a great gem rebellion that Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, led against the oppressive Great Diamond Authority. They also head down to the arcade, go on road trips, and play with Steven’s pet lion.

    The show has something for everyone, but with 152 episodes already in the bank, the notion of diving in can be daunting, particularly considering its dense mythology. If you’re still on the fence, here are episodes sure to pique the interest of even the most skeptical viewer.


    For Wrestling Fans

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    Steven Universe

    Start with: “Tiger Millionaire,” Season 1, Episode 9

    What you need to know: Steven has three super-powered aunts, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, and they can shape-shift.

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    Why it’s great: Steven Universe understands fandom and expression like few other shows, and it demonstrates that right off the bat in “Tiger Millionaire.” The episode is a love letter to professional wrestling. It’s able to capture what makes wrestling such a cathartic communal experience because it respects it, embracing wrestling as a very different, but undeniably compelling, form of entertainment and performance. This episode is light, breezy, and fun, but at its core is an exploration of communication, anger management, and healthy coping skills.

    Further exploration: Tiger Millionaire returns in “Tiger Philanthropist,” Season 4, Episode 19


    For Time-Travel Fans

    Steven and the Stevens

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    Start with: “Steven and the Stevens,” Season 1, Episode 22

    What you need to know: Nothing. As long as you’re willing to go along with the basic premise of the show, this is a pure standalone.

    Why it’s great: Steven Universe takes a wonderfully low-stakes approach to time travel, a popular genre conceit, and manages to put together an initially lighthearted episode that turns disturbing by the end. The closing lines of the episode are an early indicator of the series’ interest in and commitment to Steven’s mental health and the trauma any child would feel after the events that fill Steven’s days. It’s also a creative new take on a familiar device and one that incorporates the show’s soundtrack and score to delightful effect.

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    Further exploration: The time-travel device in “Steven and the Stevens” first appears in the show’s un-aired original pilot. It’s a strong episode and an effective and efficient introduction to the show’s main characters and dynamics and well worth seeking out.


    For Classic Horror Fans

    Horror Club

    Start with: “Horror Club,” Season 1, Episode 41

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    What you need to know: When injured, Gems’ physical forms pop and the beings retreat into their gem to heal. If their gem is cracked, all sorts of unexpected things can happen.

    Why it’s great: This is another mostly standalone episode, one examining Steven’s relationships with his friends and fellow town-mates and their relationships with each other. It just uses the language and visuals of horror to do so. Ronaldo, the town conspiracy theorist, and Sadie, who works at the donut shop, have an affinity for schlocky horror movies, the gorier the better. When Steven, Ronaldo, Sadie, and Lars find their horror movie night interrupted by a potential poltergeist, Ronaldo and Lars’ past baggage comes roaring back to life, as any horror aficionado knows it must, and along with Steven, they find themselves in a race to save Sadie.

    Further exploration: Sadie’s horror fandom comes up most significantly in “Sadie Killer,” Season 5, Episode 9, when Sadie and her friends contemplate starting a horror-inspired rock band.


    For Fans of Chosen-One Narratives

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    Full_Disclosure

    Start with: “Full Disclosure,” Season 2, Episode 1

    What you need to know: Steven just survived a massive, traumatizing battle.

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    Why it’s great: It’s all fun and games until you’re space-jailed, nearly die, and barely save the planet. When Steven gets a taste of the life-or-death stakes of his aunts’ work protecting the Earth, it’s time to make some decisions and quickly. “Full Disclosure” follows Steven as he copes with the trauma of his latest adventure. It’s Steven Universe’s answer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Anne” or the early chapters of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Now that the hero knows the stakes, can he return to his life and friends? Steven answers these questions and more, showing its maturity and creativity and strengthening its commitment to Steven’s humanity and that of those around him.

    Further exploration: There are plenty of other recognizable Chosen One steps that Steven goes through, but if “Full Disclosure” has you intrigued, you’re best off just starting from the pilot. Sure, the early episodes are very standalone, but the cumulative effect of the narrative is much more impactful than skipping to Joseph Campbell’s famous mile-markers.


    For Performance and Drag Fans

    Sadie's Song

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    Start with: “Sadie’s Song,” Season 2, Episode 17

    What you need to know: Nothing. This is another pure standalone episode.

    Why it’s great: The son of a rock musician and a natural ham, Steven has no trouble in the limelight, but this episode focuses instead on Sadie, Steven’s friend from the local donut shop. “Sadie’s Song” begins as a familiar “Let’s put on a show!” narrative, but it turns partway through, exploring identity, anxiety, and acceptance. The individual connection each person shares to music and performance runs through the episode, as does the weight of expectation and the ability of people to either find or lose themselves on stage. The episode culminates in a terrific performance of Sadie’s titular song, “Haven’t You Noticed That I’m a Star,” a creative solution to the episode’s central tension and a worthy interpretation of a catchy, fun tune.

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    Further exploration: Sadie’s musical exploration continues in season five with “Sadie Killer,” episode 9, and “The Big Show,” episode 14. Fans looking for explorations of gender should seek out “Alone Together,” Season 1, Episode 37, which introduces a prominent genderqueer character, and fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race may wish to seek out “Lars of the Stars,” Season 5, Episode 11, which features the voice acting of Jinkx Monsoon, winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season five.


    For Romance Fans

    The Answer

    Start with: “The Answer,” Season 2, Episode 22

    What you need to know: Steven’s mother and adoptive aunts, the alien Crystal Gems, led a rebellion against the Great Diamond Authority, which imposed a highly stratified class structure. Gems have the ability to fuse, combining to create a new, separate identity sharing the personality, memories, and traits of the fused gems, but this is highly taboo in Gem culture and seen by many Gems as an abomination.

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    Why it’s great: Steven learns that his adoptive aunt, Garnet, is actually a fusion of Ruby and Sapphire at the end of season one. Twenty-two episodes later, Garnet finally shares her origin story with Steven, showing how Ruby and Sapphire met and came to form Garnet. This swooningly romantic tale is told as a bedtime story to Steven, with beautiful art reminiscent of shadow puppets and storybooks and a clear message of love, destiny, and the combination of chance and choice that lets people to find each other and build their lives together. There’s a healthy dose of tragic romance at the core of Steven Universe, but “The Answer” underlines the show’s belief in transformative, blissfully happy, and fulfilling love as well.

    Further exploration: Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship is one of the series’ most important and most unabashedly romantic. It’s a thread throughout the run of the series, kicking off with Steven’s introduction to Ruby and Sapphire in “Jailbreak,” Season 1, Episode 52 and culminating significantly in the most recent episode, “Reunited,” Season 5, Episodes 23–24.


    For ‘Shipping and Fanfic Fans

    Log_Date_7_15_2_245

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    Start with: “Log 7 15 2,” Season 2, Episode 26

    What you need to know: Peridot, a green Gem, recently defected from the Great Diamond Authority, asserting her independence from her beloved leader, Yellow Diamond, when she refused to stop plans to terraform Earth and destroy all life on the planet. As stated above, Gems have the ability to fuse with each other, creating a new and distinct identity that’s a combination of each Gem’s personalities, memories, and traits. Fusion is highly taboo on the Gem Homeworld. Garnet has Future Vision, which allows her to see likely potential outcomes and predict the future to a limited degree.

    Why it’s great: For a subculture that’s been around as long as it has, surprisingly few TV series understand and respect ‘shipping (fans’ emotional investment in the romantic lives of fictional characters) and fanfic (fan-written fiction based on pre-existing characters and worlds). Steven Universe is one that absolutely does, using ‘shipping to help recent convert to the Crystal Gem cause, Peridot, overcome her ingrained distrust of fusion and those who are different from her. The episode uses fanfic and the freedom it provides fans to help Peridot see the limitations she’s accepted without question, a brilliant move that encourages viewers to question their world and view it from a new perspective.

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    Further exploration: Camp Pining Hearts returns, briefly, in “Beta,” Season 3, Episode 22.


    For Fans of Musicals

    Mr. Greg

    Start with: “Mr. Greg,” Season 3, Episode 8

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    What you need to know: Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, had a complex and incredibly personal relationship with Pearl for thousands of years. She also had a loving romantic relationship with Steven’s father, Greg, and ultimately sacrificed her corporeal form to birth or create Steven. There’s been tension between Pearl and Greg ever since. Rose’s gem lives on in Steven.

    Why it’s great: This musical episode is filled with memorable and catchy songs, but it’s the emotional resonance of the numbers and the catharsis of the episode’s resolution of the show’s (at this point) 86-episode-long tension between Pearl and Greg that gives it its weight. Steven Universe has a cast full of talented singers, but the standout is Broadway alum Deedee Magno Hall, who voices Pearl and brings the house down with the emotional “It’s Over Isn’t It.” Energy, emotional resonance, and toe-tapping dance numbers, “Mr. Greg” has everything fans of musical theater look for, and it does it all in only 11 minutes.

    Further exploration: There are fantastic musical numbers featured regularly throughout the run of Steven Universe, starting with the pilot. The first non-diegetic musical number comes in “Giant Woman,” Season 1 Episode 12 and there’s one in the most recent episode, “Reunited,” Season 5 Episode 23–24.


    For Anime Fans

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    Kiki's Pizza

    Start with: “Kiki’s Pizza Delivery Service,” Season 3, Episode 13

    What you need to know: Nothing. This is yet another fully standalone episode.

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    Why it’s great: Steven is dismayed to realize he’s accidentally started dream-hopping, turning up in Kiki’s pizza-themed nightmares. A fun romp in dreamland turns into a thoughtful look at boundaries, self-care, and communication as Kiki’s bottled-up emotions take on a life of their own and start impacting Steven. With direct nods to The End of Evangelion, Astro Boy, and others, “Kiki’s Pizza Delivery Service” is a good example of how the series engages with popular anime tropes, using the fantastical to illuminate the mundane and finding a spark of creativity and adventure in even the most ordinary elements of daily life.

    Further exploration: Anime is a huge inspiration for Steven Universe and there are direct references to popular and obscure anime throughout the series. For a quick primer, check out, “Why Are Anime Fans Obsessed with Steven Universe?” by Jacob Chapman from Anime News Network, then dive in with the pilot and start reference-spotting.


    For Meditation and Philosophy Fans

    Mindful Education

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    Start with: “Mindful Education,” Season 4, Episode 4

    What you need to know: As mentioned above, Gems are able to fuse with each other to create new identities that are combinations of the original Gems’ personalities, memories, and traits. Garnet is a fusion of the cool and collected Sapphire and the energetic and impetuous Ruby. Steven, as half-human, is able to fuse with humans and fuses with his friend Connie to become Stevonnie. At this point in the show, Steven has been dealing with a lot of mommy issues, questioning what he knows about the mother he never met, Rose Quartz, and her role starting the Crystal Gems’ violent and destructive rebellion.

    Why it’s great: Voiced by Grammy Award-winning singer Estelle, Garnet is the calm and centered leader of the Crystal Gems. “Mindful Education” gives viewers a glimpse into how this character with Future Vision and the fate of the Earth on her shoulders stays cool and collected. A primer on mindfulness, the episode not only takes viewers into Garnet’s meditative headspace; it also features one of the series’ best songs and important lessons on managing stress and, once again, communication. It’s also a great episode for fan-favorite Stevonnie and gives Steven a much-needed nudge towards processing and addressing his mommy issues.

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    Further exploration: Pretty much every Garnet-centric episode has some level of philosophy and self-exploration, but another standout and a fun follow-up to “Mindful Education” is “Pool Hopping,” Season 5, Episode 15.

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