In its four-year, five season run, Steven Universe has captured the hearts and minds of fans worldwide. Drawing inspiration from and referencing things like Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Jem & The Holograms, Revolutionary Girl Utena and even Neon Genesis Evangelion, Rebecca Sugar’s labor of love is as good as it comes. As well as the show handles action and comedy, it excels as a character drama; it’s best episodes aren’t particularly its funniest or flashiest, but the ones that hit the closest to home and let the viewer understand and connect to characters and their interpersonal relationships.
Take the episode “Mr. Greg”, for example. Steven’s father, and the all around best member of the supporting cast, Greg Universe, hits it big when one of his songs is sold as a jingle for a burger joint, making him a millionaire. The money doesn’t change his life that much – he still opts to live in his van and run Beach City’s car wash – its real purpose is to engineer a conversation with Pearl, who has acted as both a maternal surrogate to Steven in the absence of his mother, Rose, and a romantic rival to Greg for her affection when she was around. Greg and Pearl have been at odds for some two decades, ever since Greg arrived in Beach City and swept the statuesque stunner off her feet with a song and essentially leaving Pearl on her own. In “Mr. Greg”, the show trades its typical structure for a Broadway-style musical that finally lays everything bare between Pearl and Greg and allows them to finally bury an 18 year hatchet. It’s an episode where no progression happens in terms of plot, but the characters get to grow and develop and it’s just as valuable; Steven Universe tends to do this a lot, particularly in the episodes “Island Adventure”,”Story For Steven”, “On the Run”, and “Mindful Education”, for example.
The most recent batch of episodes does this exceptionally well, handling the fallout from Steven’s excursion to his ancestral home planet and how his best friend/teammate/romantic interest Connie copes with the insane risk he took in going there alone, as well as how his friend and Beach City’s favorite Donut Girl, Sadie is dealing with the absence of her friend/coworker/boyfriend? Lars, who unwillingly tagged along and is now effectively trapped in space (and kind of a zombie but hey, that’s neither here nor there). Steven and Connie’s situation is not only an accurate representation of growing pains in any relationship, platonic or otherwise, but is almost a perfect parallel to what happened between them in the season two premiere, “Full Disclosure”.
In that episode, Steven returns after being a prisoner of the hostile Homeworld Gem, Jasper, and is left to grapple with whether to tell her what happened and essentially involving her in it, or to leave her in the dark and avoid her, in order to protect her. He does eventually resolve to tell her and promises they’ll always be a team, but only after not answering any of her calls or texts messages and physically hiding from her for a full day. However, after Steven breaks that promise during the “Wanted” event in order to protect Connie and the rest of Beach City from a problem he inadvertently caused, the shoe is on the other foot. Now Connie is avoiding him, and he’s left under the weight of his own self-sacrifice. After all, he did do the right thing, but at what cost?
Through every single thing Steven has witnessed, Connie has been his closest confidant. She’s his only friend his age that he can talk to about it – he’s younger than the Cool Kids, but older than Onion, who isn’t much of a talker in the first place – and she’s been more directly involved with everything ever since she gained the ability to fuse with Steven back in “Alone Together” and learned how to fight in the season two episode “Sworn to the Sword”. Their relationship is important to both of them and just as important to the viewer; through the five episodes this spat takes place, it was the primary driver of my interest. I wanted to see them get through it and come out clean on the other side, even more so than I wanted to see how Steven would get back to Earth from Homeworld in the previous five, because it’s treated with equal importance.
Steven Universe puts a heavy emphasis on its characters and makes them its primary thrust. The plot and larger mythos is important but it wouldn’t matter if the cast and their interplay with one another wasn’t treated with the reverence that it is. Rose isn’t as important without the impact she left on Greg an Pearl’s lives, or Steven’s own internal conflict about her. Steven himself isn’t nearly as good of a character without the way he plays off of Connie, which is reflected in the way they fight, covering each other’s weaknesses by fighting as individuals with Steven’s shield and Connie’s sword, or using both while fusing to become Stevonnie and fighting as a physically stronger person. As a matter of fact, Stevonnie only exists when the two of them are in perfect sync, a character that is a living representation of how close their bond is and is literally the strongest version of them. The level of importance and respect that their relationship, among all others in Steven Universe are given, is the biggest reason that it remains Cartoon Network’s best.
Then again, maybe I’m over analyzing things.