I apologize for my tardiness. I had a broken computer, and some other stuff. I also apologize, in advance, for my inevitable incoherence. Over my extended hiatus, I watched a lot of Steven Universe, then I watched it again, and now I am going to attempt to write about it. It’s like an itch you try to scratch, but once you get your finger close enough it latches on and gives you a big hug and you forget exactly what you were doing in the first place.
Here’s the skinny on the show before I dive into my stream of adulation. The brainchild of ex-Adventure Time storyboarder, musician, and Forbes-certified Powerful Woman Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe is about the Crystal Gems, female-presenting aliens who protect Earth, warp around on scenic adventures, and generally chill with each other. They are Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, and Steven, the titular half-Gem half-Human kiddo whose mother Rose Quartz gave up her physical form to bring him into this world. She got knocked up by Greg, Steven’s van-dwelling father and all-around honeybear. Rose was the de facto leader of the Crystal Gems before her essence became a fixture on Steven’s belly, and if anyone mentions her in an episode, y’alls are due for a trip to the cryerworks factory. With a tangible sense of history and unflagging focus on interpersonal relationships, Steven Universe is the gut-bustingly funniest, eyelid-wringingly saddest show about ass-kicking grrliens to ever air.
And after three attempts to write a re-inaugural post about it, after two full binges and endless breaks between work shifts browsing fan art on Tumblr (MLG-Peridot forever!), I realized it was nigh-impossible to keep an objectivish, critical tone about this goddamn show.
I just need a moment to rave. And there will be free glowsticks.
I love this show. I am in love with Steven, his bravery and his compassion and his antics. I am in love with Garnet, her patience and her fury; I am in love with Amethyst, her big-sister rebellion and vulnerable core; I am so in love with Pearl, who holds a legitimate claim for the throne of Best Character On Television (watch yourselves, Tina Belcher and Vincent Adultman). I am in love with Greg and Connie, whose utter humanity low-key shapes and smushes all viewers’ emotions like so much putty in their hands. I am in love with Lars and Sadie, who are really in love with each other but just need to get over it. I am in love with Sour Cream, Onion, Jenni, Kiki and Kofi and Nanafua, Opal, Stevonnie, Buck Dewey, Mayor Dewey, Mayor Dewey’s Van, Peridot, Lapis Lazuli—aw shit, even Jasper has grown on me. I already said Pearl, right?
In the span of a single 52-episode season, Steven Universe reinvented itself twice, acquired a rabid and rapidly growing fandom, and earned its place in the “Golden Age of Kid’s Cartoons” discussion spurred by Adventure Time’s mainstream acceptance. Primarily, thinkpiece scribes celebrate its warm tone and fundamental friendliness between all characters, in addition to stellar diversity behind and in-front of the camera. Both of these powers combined form a casual sense of inclusion that has doubtlessly contributed to its steady growth. Even Reddit and Tumblr can agree on one thing: Steven Universe rocks hard.
With few exceptions, almost every episode is of such stellar quality that I have a real, real, real hard time figuring out where to start off. Early episodes “Laser Light Cannon” and “Giant Woman,” which artfully constructs the anatomy of Crystal Gem reality by balancing exposition with pathos? Or “Space Race” and “Coach Steven,” whose laser-pointer focus on character flaws—in these cases, Pearl’s monomania and insecurity, respectively—allows them to evolve at ludicrous speed into believable, tragic figures? Do I join the conversation about its diversity in race, gender, body types, even sexual preferences (nothing less than pioneering for a friggin Cartoon Network show)? What of its mashup of western and eastern animation styles? Its deep, unabiding compassion and positivity? The disgustingly good soundtrack?
Nah, I’ll just talk about Greg.
Greg Universe!: A Dad For All Seasons
Greg, Steven’s father, contains multitudes. We meet him asleep in the van he calls home, parked outside the car wash he calls work. Bald on top with long, luscious locks flowing to his ankles, decked out in an A-shirt that contradicts his farmer’s tan, Greg tilts his head upward and squints at the thing on top of his van. The sun is in his eyes, but he can just barely recognize who stands in front of it: his son. “Steven?” he says, surprised and a little confused. Either Greg just woke up, he hadn’t seen Steven in years, or both.
For all intents and purposes, Greg does not inspire confidence on the surface. One might easily assume, as I did, that he would be lazy, deadbeat, an oaf. His design threatened to walk the humiliating path of anti-role-modelry paved by so many TV dads before him.
But Greg subverts all expectations set by his ramshackle appearance in the most unlikely (but most Steven Universe-y) ways: by owning them. The show never cracks easy, mean jokes about his appearance, general messiness, or nebulous financial situation; it imbues these qualities into his essential mystique. Once a musician whose cosmic ambitions were put into stasis when he found love, his ankle-biting supermullet is a leftover from his hair metal years. He keeps 99% of his worldly possessions in a hopelessly cluttered storage locker, but Steven explores it like a Herzogian cave of memory in “Laser Light Cannon.”
But what of his on-again-off-again relationship with Steven? The show openly admits Greg is a less-than-present parent. And that’s just a-okay! Nontraditional family dynamics are a popular pet subject of the show; its sparing use of Greg in Steven’s life is just one example out of fifty. Hell, with three alien moms, who needs a full-time dad?
If you need additional justification, the show even manages to find the perfect, conscientious reason to keep Greg in a supporting role in Steven’s life. He consciously rolls sidecar in Steven’s life out of respect for the Crystal Gems, who coach Steven full-time on fulfilling his ass-kicking alien potential. Greg demonstratively loves his son and wants to be a part of his life, but he is also considerate of the boy’s needs as a half-Crystal Gem that his limited experience can never satisfy. Whenever Steven needs to become reacquainted with his humanity, Greg will be there, sunburned and full of heart, to dispense it in the raw. Cognizant of his place in the world, responsible yet having no responsibility, Greg represents the next evolution of genial laziness in TV father figures: the Zen Dad. Clumsy, sunburnt Zen Dad.
And while the Crystal Gems have a magical stone temple to practice their arts, Greg has his van.
Ingrained into his image from the second episode of the series, Greg’s van embodies the monkish lack of wanting that is central to Greg’s character. More than that, it manages to re-position tropes regarding vans in general. Since time immemorial, the van has been a symbol of escape, uncertainty, and the uprooted lifestyle of a troubadour. This association is smartly associated with Greg’s past, but not his present. The van is a relic of his bygone youthful escapism, his life as a scrappy community college dropout and part-time comet.
Nowadays, Greg’s van isn’t for driving away—it’s for driving toward. “Let me drive my van into you’re heart!” is the perfect name for his non-smash single, since it capture so much about his willingness to sacrifice and devote his own passions for the needs of his friends and loved ones. He’s aware of the fact that he puts others ahead of himself, but that’s all that he wants in the world, for better or worse. “I know I don’t have a plan,” he sings, “I’m working on that part. But at least I have a van! So let me drive my van into your heeeaart!” Greg might not have his own act together, but damned if he won’t get your act off the ground twice as quickly.
Except, of course, when he accidentally sabotages your act altogether. The secret to Steven Universe’s potent character cocktails is fallibility, and Zen Greg is far from nirvana. After he breaks his leg in “House Guest,” he jumps at the tempting offer to move in with Steven and the Gems. The episode skews a bit sitcommy, as he bends the truth in several, escalating occasions, all in a ploy to continue living in the house. But this is Steven Universe we’re talking about here, and his well-intentioned transgressions have serious long-term ramifications for Steven and the Gems. The show doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences of Greg’s affable clumsiness at its worst, no matter how profusely he apologizes for drifting too close to Steven’s life and interfering with Gem business.
On the other hand, the threat of growing too distant hangs in the air, as well. Greg struggles with feelings of guilt, alienation, and his insufficiency as a father figure in the later episode “Maximum Capacity.” Neutralizing Greg’s likability in an all-too-relatable way, the episode pits Steven against the old TV show the man simply cannot stop marathonning. As he gazes into the endless temptations of Li’l Butler, we get a glimpse of a Greg distracted from his basic humanity, a man who cannot take care of himself or his son. The moment serves as a reminder of the fragile excellence of Steven Universe’s character construction, how a gentle push towards an established flaw can reveal unseen depths.
Greg is just one flawed cog in Steven Universe’s complex family unit, and he’s not even my favorite flawed cog. But he represents a new type of dad for a television landscape that’s rife with third-generation Homer Simpson clones. He goes his own way, lives small and loves big. He has guilts and selfish instincts, but he apologizes, owns up to them, and tries to find comfortable peace with his weird, half-alien son. 30% schlemiel and 70% schlemazel, Greg is 100% indispensable. He might not be able to tell us about fusions or be particularly effective at fighting monsters, but he anchors Steven Universe to the human element of its protagonist.
Well, “anchors” might not be the right word; how can you anchor down something made up of so many moving parts? Something so dense and emotionally complex, fraught with loss and regret, teeming with generosity and strength, passion, uncertainty, naiveté, and just plain joy?
Duh! With a van!
We! Are the Crystal Gems! We’ll Always Save the Stray (Observations For the End of the Article)!
- Now that I’m no longer legally bound to stick to my thesis, I’d like to elaborate on my briefly mentioned love for Pearl, who has parried and thrust her way straight to the top of my personal “Favorite TV Characters” list. Garnet and Amethyst are no slouches, and I might have a “thing” for critically adoring TV moms and mom-types (Peggy Hill is my always and forever #1 favorite) that would predispose me toward the mommest of Steven’s space moms, but every. single. Pearl episode tears me up like a sad sappy sucker. It certainly helps that Deedee Magno sells the shit out of the character. Singsonging her way through deadpan laugh lines with surgically precise turns of phrase, lending everything a neurotic edge while keeping the core of her performance ineffably sweet—Magno folds comedy, tragedy, and millennia of unspoken history into a vocal performance for the ages. Plus, can she SING or WHAT??
- Also, Connie is amazing. Largely for the same humanity-and-whatnot reasons I got into above re:Greg, so I won’t spend another 1500 words on it… right now.
- Arbitrary Top Five Episodes List? Arbitrary Top Five Episodes List: “Space Race,” “Island Adventure,” “Jailbreak,” “Steven the Sword Fighter,” and most of all “Alone Together.” But “Lars and the Cool Kids” tho, plus can’t forget “Coach Steven,” or my soft spot for “Warp Tour,” or the aforementioned “Maximum Capacity,” or “An Indirect Kiss,” or “Lion 3,” or…
- Welcome back to Your Horrible Family! I’ve now got 1.25 functioning computers and a hastily retreating feeling of constant dread, so anticipate more words on words on words about whatever comics, zines, or animated spectaculars I find worthy of note/analysis.