Cartoon Network Strangles Steven Universe

steven_wallpaper_small(l to r:) Pearl, Steven, Amethyst, and Garnet.

So my loving wife got me hooked on a new-ish animated series called Steven Universe. I’ve found it to be one of the most creative world-building exercises I’ve ever seen, and am in a constant state of admiration as new details are revealed in each episode that either explain things from past episodes, or deepen one of numerous mysteries.

In a nutshell, it’s the story of Steven, and his three “Guardians,” the alien Crystal Gems: Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. The Gems are in fact living gems in humanoid form. As such they don’t need to eat or sleep, though Amethyst seems to enjoy eating just for the pleasure of it.
Steven’s father is a mortal man, Greg Universe, a guitarist who never quite succeeded, but who fell in love with Rose Quartz, the leader of the Crystal Gems. Together, they had a child, Steven. It is, in fact, vastly more complex than that, but that’s the basic premise. The gems, while appearing female and voiced by all female voice actors so far, are somewhat androgynous. Using this androgyny, the show cleverly features many LGBT issues.

Steven Universe was created by Rebecca Sugar, previously known for, among other things, being a writer and storyboard artist for another Cartoon Network series, “Adventure Time.” When Steven Universe was green-lit by Cartoon Network in 2012, Ms. Sugar became the first solo female cartoon creator in the network’s history.

SPOILER ALERT!!!

Some 5,000 years ago, the Crystal Gems rebelled against their homeworld because the Gem culture was going to destroy earth by colonizing it. Rose Quartz decided she would fight to save Earth, knowing that she and all her followers would be killed if they lost, and even if they won, they would face permanent exile on Earth.

We jump forward to today, where Rose Quartz and Greg Universe fall in love with each other, and create a child. In order for Steven to exist, Rose has to put part of herself into him; I presume this destroys her, but we keep getting tantalizing hints that maybe she’s not really gone, or perhaps might be able to return. Another mystery.

Anyway, the three remaining gems — the only other survivors of the rebellion — are Steven’s caretakers. Since he is part Gem, Steven has some rather unusual powers like other gems. He can summon a shield made of energy when in need, just as other gems can summon weapons out of thin air when attacked. Gems can fuse with each other to create more powerful entities, and Steven discovers he can fuse with humans when he accidentally fuses with his human friend, Connie. Interestingly, fusion occurs when two or more gems dance together, and it would appear that the dances are different for different pairings. We see Garnet and Pearl, Garnet and Amethyst, Pearl and Amethyst, and all three fuse together, and the dances seem to be different in each case. Garnet herself is actually a stable fusion between Ruby and Sapphire, and their relationship is deeply committed and loving, which other gems sometimes find confusing or even repellent. Steve fuses with Connie when they dance together, and spend an evening exploring the world as one in a very innocent and touching experience.

The Gems frequently go on missions to destroy or capture remnants of crystal beings left on Earth. These remnants pose a dire threat to humans, so the Crystal Gems take it upon themselves to continue cleaning up the mess from their successful rebellion five millennia ago. Most are described as “corrupted gems”, but we are unclear on what that really means until some tantalizing hints are dropped in Season three. Steven often accompanies the Gems on these missions, and it is here that he most often discovers new powers, and learns better how to control the ones he already has.

END SPOILER ALERT

So how is Cartoon Network strangling Steve Universe? For me, it’s their apparent refusal to either A) show episodes in some kind of order — this is a complicated story, here, with LOTS going on; it’s tough to piece things together when you don’t have all the pieces — or B) start collecting the episodes in order on home video so people can rent or buy them to catch up with what’s happening. In Cartoon Network’s defense, the episodes ARE available as digital download files, collected by season, and I may have to break down and purchase those if I want to see every episode.

I recently noticed an acquaintance talking on Facebook about binge-watching SU, and I asked how he possibly managed it. He explained that he viewed it through a torrent site. Torrent sites are frustration incarnate to creative folks. People post all kinds of things to them that they have no right to, most often under the banner that “information should be free” In this case, information includes any kind of artistic endeavor, from cartoons to movies, and from novels and gaming books to graphic novels, television programs, and more. Basically, torrent sites take an already thin stream of revenue away from the folks who created the thing and depend on it for their livelihood by giving it away for free. Most larger corporations play whack-a-mole with torrent sites, sending cease and desist orders to shut down the site (or at least get them to remove someone’s legally-owned create property), but like Hydra two more spring up to take its place. Most small-time operators can’t afford the legal fees to shut down more than one such torrent site, and there are thousands out there. The more popular their thing, the more torrent sites on which it will appear.

The reason this is all so frustrating is that I WANT to give these people money. I’m enjoying the fruits of their creative labor immensely, and am willing to pay to enjoy more of it. I WANT to buy full seasons on DVD so I can watch them; I’ve discovered several episodes that I’ve watched repeatedly, and will watch them several times more before I grow tired of them — it’s one of my quirks. The fact that they have developed a strategy of stinginess is literally driving people to torrent sites so they can get their fix of this wonderful show. I have yet to visit a torrent site to try to fill in the holes in my SU education, and I doubt I ever will.

Lately, Cartoon Network has been showing “best of” episodes arranged around a central theme — usually the theme is one of the characters — in a half-assed effort to get more content out there. There is no attempt at any sort of organization beyond the central theme, so they’re tending to rerun some of the same episodes repeatedly. In some cases (for me, at least) this is moderately okay, but I’m dying to know more about the origin stories of the characters and the worlds they live in. They should really take a page from any number of other popular shows out there and start marketing it properly.

The show is growing in popularity — exponentially, it seems — and while they’ve been dribbling new episodes out a few at a time — including a “Summer of Steven” promotion where there’s been a new episode every day for several weeks during the summer months — it’s not quite enough for me. I get that animation is expensive and time-consuming, and I have no quibbles about that part of the process. Truth be told, I’m something of a luddite, and would prefer the safety of DVDs over the uncertainty (for me) of digital downloads. Digital downloads of video also take up a huge amount of memory, and I’m not sure I’m willing to devote so much of my computer’s hard drive to containing those episodes. I’m sure my wife could figure out a better storage option, but I’m hoping we won’t have to. I hope it will be considered a compliment to the show’s creators that I have grown so obsessed with Steven Universe that I want to view every episode.

I’m loving Steven Universe! The characters are so well developed, the setting and back story are fascinating, and it’s easy to care about the characters. They are sympathetic without being simple. They have their own motivations, and these motivations can (and do) cause complications that affect other characters, just like in real life.

To check out more of the show, swing by the Cartoon Network web site. I really wish they had a dedicated Steven Universe section, but they don’t; everything is scattered about, pell-mell, on the site. If you go to the shop, however, you can view a dedicated Steven Universe section there, filled with all kinds of cool merchandise from mugs and T-shirts to backpacks and large-headed plastic figures.

Despite my quibbles with Cartoon Network’s marketing and business decisions surrounding the show, I’m now a full-blown fan, and am hoping to see more of the show in years to come. I hope the show’s writers and producers run out of stories before the tire of Steven and his friends. They’ve done a great job creating an intriguing universe that has inspired a powerful sense of wonder in me, and for that, I thank them all.

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