Steven Universe begins harmlessly enough. There's a loud, boisterous boy named Steven, and he's...he's a Crystal Gem? He's got a gem stuck in his belly. And it's supposed to give him special powers. That appear to be activated by his favorite ice cream, Cookie Cat. Uh, okay. And he lives with three other Crystal Gems, whatever those are. Pearl, tall and skinny and lithe like a dancer, very prim, very meticulous. Amethyst, short and squat and buff like a fighter, very crass, very feral. Garnet, tall and built and calm like a Zen master, very soft-spoken, very enigmatic. And they all have magical powers or whatever. Okay, that was a decent eleven minutes of story, but what's the big deal?
Oh. You guys. This show is a big fucking deal.
The absolute genius of Steven Universe lies in how the show slowly reveals itself to be so much more than you thought it was, and on top of that, so forward-thinking that it's clear that they knew all of these incredible worldbuilding and character details from the beginning. This is a show that will focus on a cheeseburger backpack and a stack of waffles but actually tell you all about the world and backstory if you pay attention to the setting and the dialogue. This is a show that can introduce a character and then make me cry about her in seven minutes. This is a show that will drop earthshattering worldbuilding into episodes when you least expect it. The S1 finale contains a moment that is one of the most brilliant things I have ever seen done in any medium, a culmination of tremendous character and storytelling work.
My challenge here is, as it always is, to attempt to sell the show without spoiling it, especially since I came in knowing nothing so even basic worldbuilding things like "What the hell is a Crystal Gem?" were unknown to me, and I enjoyed learning every new piece of information as the show told it to me since I was learning it along with Steven. Steven learns more and more about what the Gems are, who they were, where they came from, what they are here for, and what they do, as he attempts to fulfill his own destiny as a Gem and aid them on missions. Often...poorly, since he can't seem to activate his own powers, and also he's Steven, and he's a doof. A lovable fucking doof. (This line tells you everything you need to know about Steven: "We can totally build a spaceship! People have done it before, and we're people!") But they're going to keep Beach City safe. And also weird. KEEP BEACH CITY WEIRD.
Beach City is very weird, you guys. Here are the titles of some episodes from which you may be able to glean weirdness: "Cat Fingers," "Tiger Millionaire," "Steven's Lion," some other feline stuff, "Watermelon Steven," okay, that's enough. I came to the show expecting something like Adventure Time, but they are very, very different shows, the only commonalities being an excitable boy and a surprising amount of worldbuilding and emotional destruction. Steven Universe is far more coherent and interested in telling character-focused stories, whereas Adventure Time often seems to just delight in weirdness for weirdness's sake. And I love Steven Universe far, far more than I love Adventure Time now (I still like Adventure Time though). But my point is that the show has delightfully bizarre standalone episodes that highlight the town's inhabitants, like Sadie and Lars, who work at Steven's favorite donut shop; conspiracy theorist Ronaldo, who has a very important blog; Mayor Dewey, who, like most fictional politicians (and, uh, real ones, I guess), is terrible and incompetent; Onion, who...who...I don't even know about Onion, you guys, but I love that weird little dude; the Pizzas, who run a pizza shop. And so on. The show has more diversity onscreen and offscreen than most shows, too! In addition to Garnet and the Pizzas, Steven's best friend, Connie, is Indian, and nearly all the voice actors are women of color.
Besides the consistently amazing writing and ever-more-complex characters (every single character has hidden depths, is far more interesting than you think they are initially), I love how fucking positive this show is. It promotes love, but not in a cheesy THE POWER OF LOVE way, but in the real way that people care for and about each other. Steven and the Gems have conflicts, but they resolve them by talking about them and understanding that they are not perfect. Steven fucks up a lot, but the Gems are his family, and they always forgive him: they know he means well and they know that making him feel bad won't solve anything. There are some episodes in the second season that I could not believe, because I'd never seen conversations like this on television, and this was on a show for children, not sugarcoating the world for kids, allowing them to see that the world is messy but still beautiful, that relationships are hard but they are worth it.
Steven Universe starts out a weird children's show and then proves itself to be legitimately good science fiction with a more nuanced and mature depiction of friendship, romance, and relationships between women than most live-action dramas. It is an amazing fucking goddamn show, and more people need to be watching it.