Steven Universe is back, but if you’re confused as to why so many people across the internet are frothing at the mouth for its return, we’re here to help! This is everything you need to know to starting watching the adventures of Steven and the Crystal Gems immediately. (Because you really, really should.)
What is Steven Universe?
Created by former Adventure Time storyboard artist Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe is an intermittently-broadcast animated series on Cartoon Network that follows the adventures of, you guessed it, Steven Universe — a young human boy who discovers his legacy as the child of the leader in a superhero-esque group of aliens, the Crystal Gems, sworn to protect the planet Earth from intergalactic threats. The series balances slice-of-life and coming-of-age stories about Steven growing up and coming into his important own with the Crystal Gems with superheroic action as they fight to keep Earth safe.
Meet the Crystal Gems…
There are four main characters in Steven Universe, who are members of the Crystal Gems: Steven, a young boy, and Garnet (the red-coloured one), Amethyst (the purple-coloured one), and Pearl (the pale-coloured one): crystalline alien warriors from a race known as the Gems.
Gems have no gender — They’re space rocks, for want of a better phrase. A gem has the ability to project a humanoid body (usually female in form) from their gem to enable them to interact with the world around them. The projected body that can be damaged, but repaired if a gem spends time in their gemstone form (if the gemstone itself is destroyed, however, a Gem dies permanently), and doesn’t age, giving Gems incredibly long lifespans.
Multiple Gems can also fuse together into a single larger, stronger form through a process known as “fusion,” a process that is not permanent, but can be maintained for extended periods of time. Gems are essentially superpowered — they can form special weapons out of their stone or use special abilities, and have enhanced speed and strength.
Thousands of years ago, the Gems came to Earth with their leader, Rose Quartz, as part of the Gem civilisation’s plans to colonize Earth. When Rose discovered the Gem Homeworld’s real plans for the planet (which would have exterminated all natural life), she and her closest allies rebelled, pushing the Gem armies off Earth, but at the cost of many Gem lives, leaving Rose, Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl alone and exiled on the planet.
Eventually, Rose met and fell in love with a human named Greg, and decided to have a child with him by giving up her physical form: Steven, who is the first ever Human-Gem hybrid. Steven, who inherited his mother’s gemstone and powers, lives with his surrogate family while trying to master his Gem powers, so he can join his fellow Crystal Gems in fighting to protect the planet if the Gem Homeworld returns to try its plans again.
… and their villainous foes
Oh, did I say “if”? Because of course the bad guys show up. While the Crystal Gems occasionally end up fighting monsters left over from the Gem Homeworld’s initial colonization attempt, the real villains of the show are a small group of Homeworld Gems who have returned to Earth, plotting the planet and rebellious Crystal Gems’ destruction.
The main players in this faction seen so far are: Peridot, a cowardly research scientist; Jasper, a burly warrior assigned to protect Peridot; Lapis Lazuli, a gem that was trapped on Earth but freed by Steven and eventually press-ganged by the Homeworld Gems into working with them; and their boss Yellow Diamond, one of the rulers of the Gem Empire. The show has only recently got round to introducing these villains in its slow-burning storyline, they’re the next big threat the Crystal Gems will have to face.
The rich universe of Steven
As you might have figured from all the above, Steven Universe is deceptively complex for a children’s show. While the kid-friendly themes and general energetic action of the show give it a stable young audience, older fans are drawn to the show’s ability to carefully dole out a wide, intricate backstory over its extended lifetime, whether it’s in specific backstory-heavy episodes, or more often sneakily weaved in and out of the show’s plotlines in tiny amounts as the show slowly builds to the big conflict between the Crystal and Homeworld Gems.
That slow world-building is also what makes Steven Universe fascinating to watch for older fans — watching the disparate hints and story elements scattered throughout episodes slowly come together to reveal either a major new plotline or some previously-speculated fact about the Gem Homeworld or the main characters is immensely satisfying, and fans love theorising about the show’s mostly-hidden “lore.” On the surface, it’s still simple enough for its targeted young audience to enjoy, and promotes themes of love, friendship, and acceptance that are suitably enriching for that young fanbase. But older fans thrive on learning more and more about the strange, science fictional world that Steven Universe has barely lifted the curtain on.
It’s got one heck of a soundtrack
One beloved aspect of the series important to its core is its usage of songs. The soundtrack, composed by chiptunes-inspired duo Aivi & Surasshu, is an eclectic mix of electronic and orchestral instrumentation, but its real heart comes in the various songs written for the show (often by Sugar herself). The voice cast actually features some notable singers: Deedee Magno Hall, who voices Pearl, is a broadway actor known for roles in Miss Saigon and Wicked, while British hip-hop artist Estelle plays Garnet. The guest cast is frequently musically inclined as well — everyone from Patti LuPone to Nicki Minaj have provided voices for roles.
That vast vocal talent is frequently put use, as characters often break out into musical-esque interludes, ranging from the absurd (such as raps about ice cream sandwich mascots or odes to literally gigantic women) to deeply personal character pieces, such as a ballad to Pearl’s chivalrous nature, or perhaps the show’s most iconic track, “Stronger than You,” an anthemic declaration of love by Garnet. Music becomes a vital way that the show explores its themes and characters — and as I mentioned, the songs are often great enough that you’ll find yourself tapping your feet or singing along in the process.
So what makes it work?
Beyond its compelling worldbuilding and catchy tunes, Steven Universe is perhaps most acclaimed for its female-focused creativity. Not only are the vast majority of the characters are female (or identify as such), rare for an ostensibly “superheroic” action-oriented kids show, the series’ target audience clearly includes both boys and girls. Not just that, but the show treats its female leads as complex, multifaceted characters, as people who are not perfect and have flaws. Rebecca Sugar has frequently described the show as, at its heart, being a celebration of intersectional feminism, about women with their own struggles coming together, and being stronger for it, out of their love for one another.
The series is also beloved for its willingness to dabble in LGBTQ representation and themes of gender and identity — most notably in lead character Garnet, who is a Gem Fusion that acts as the physical embodiment of a romantic relationship between two female-identifying Gems called Ruby and Sapphire, often raised up as a defining example of LGBTQ-friendly representation in children’s television. Love in general, whether it’s between families and friends, lovers, or out of this world space rocks, and both the acceptance and championship of that love, is a key tenet of the show: and a noble message for any show, let alone a children’s cartoon series.
But above all? It wraps all of those positive themes into a cheerful, hopeful adventure series, filled with fascinatingly complex relationships, one that embraces attentive viewers with a rich scifi world, enjoyable regardless of age. Steven Universe is a show for everyone — and if you want to dive in, you’ll be justly rewarded with a compelling animated series that stands as one of the best on television right now.