Every now and then, there’s a TV show that completely changes what we expect from a genre. And that’s exactly the case with “Steven Universe,” the highly acclaimed animated TV series from Cartoon Network. Created by Rebecca Sugar, “Steven Universe” has now gone on to four successful seasons, and has already been renewed for a fifth. So what exactly has been behind its phenomenal success?
#1: A coming-of-age story with a twist
For any TV series to be successful over a long period of time, it has to have strong characters that viewers can identify with and want to follow. In the case of “Steven Universe,” the main character is Steven Universe, who lives in Beach City with the “Crystal Gems,” magical humanoid-looking aliens sent to protect planet Earth.
It’s a coming-of-age story because Steven Universe needs to come to grips with his unique powers, like the power of “fusion,” in which the Crystal Gems can merge their bodies and abilities. He must also deal with the story of his mother, Rose Quartz, who was actually a Crystal Gem but gave up her powers in order to have a child on Earth.
And, finally, he must grapple with the fact that he is a “half-Gem” – someone who is part human and part Gem. You can easily read this as a metaphor for someone who is biracial or multi-ethnic: it can be difficult understanding who or what you are, and what your “real” nature is. According to the show’s creator, Rebecca Sugar, many of the ideas for what happens to Steven Universe is based on her reflections and memories of growing up in beach towns in Delaware like Rehoboth Beach. So it really is a way to tell the story of what it’s like to grow up.
#2: Fantastic girl power
What’s truly unique about “Steven Universe” is that, even though the series is ostensibly about a young boy, it’s a very girl-focused series. That’s partly the result of the show having been created by Rebecca Sugar. She is, in fact, the first-ever sole female creator of an animated cartoon series on Cartoon Network, and her feminine touch is evident throughout the show.
Take, for example, the character of Steven Universe himself. He is very much in touch with his feminine side, and he has absolutely no problems expressing his rawest emotions or hanging out with females.
And, of course, you can’t talk about “Steven Universe” without also talking about the Crystal Gems, who exude magical girl power. In talking about the series, Sugar once remarked that her goal in creating the series was to explore “the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children.” And that’s exactly what she has done – she has created unique, powerful and interesting female characters that challenge our notions of gender.
#3: A remarkable science fiction fantasy narrative
This show is, at its core, a sci-fi series. And the entire milieu has been constructed in fantastic detail. Each episode is only about 10 minutes long, so the show’s creators had to be very precise in laying out the entire background of the series within each new episode.
The result is really an epic science fiction tale, filed with female alien superheroes who defend the Earth, a great interstellar civilization, a narrative about saving the planet, and a full explanation of all the magic powers and how they were created and can be used. In many ways, say reviewers, this is not just a cartoon for kids – it’s also a cartoon for adults that includes as much detail as you’d expect from a TV series created for an older demographic.
#4:The Comic-Con effect
The show’s original success has spawned an entire franchise around “Steven Universe.” There are books, comics, video games and toys. And the TV series has become popular at Comic-Con, where it has gone on to pick up many more fans. In fact, the show made a splashy debut at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con event, and has been a fan favorite ever since.
And, of course, there’s also the music from the show. For some people, the music is one of the highlights of the TV series. What makes it special is that the rap artist Estelle is actually one of the voices of the Crystal Gems, and some of her music appears in the TV series (like the song “We Are the Crystal Gems”) The show’s creators, who use the lyrics of the songs to help tell the story, think up how these songs can move along the dialogue and narrative.
#5: The cartoon binge experience
We all know that people love to binge-watch popular dramatic shows that appear on TV or on Netflix. And “Steven Universe” has been able to piggyback on that phenomenon. Unlike other cartoon series, which release one new episode per week, “Steven Universe” often releases episodes of five within the same week. There might be several weeks without any new shows, and then all of a sudden, there are five waiting to be watched!
For that reason, the show’s fans refer to these as “Stevenbombs.” The fans look forward to bingeing on this episodes, and when they don’t appear, they get worked up into a frenzy. That brings even more attention to the TV show. In fact, Cartoon Network has noticed that there are very regular ratings spikes for “Steven Universe” that occur every time there is a new “Stevenbomb.”
#6: Pioneer of a new genre
It’s easy just to refer to “Steven Universe” as “an animated TV series” or as a “fantasy science fiction cartoon.” But that hardly does justice to what Rebecca Sugar has created. She has referred to the unique “reverse escapism” aspect to the series, in which fantasy characters become infatuated with the real world around them. They are escaping from fantasy into reality!
And, given the strong female presence throughout the show, it’s unlike any other cartoon in how it challenges gender roles in society. In that regard, it’s similar to some versions of Japanese animation, in which girls have magic super powers.
For all these reasons, then, it’s easy to see why “Steven Universe” has become such a breakout hit for Cartoon Network. It’s simply unlike anything else you’d watch on TV. And the characters and milieu are so artfully created that it almost seems to be made for adults as much as kids. It’s no wonder that fans binge-watch the series and keep waiting for the next big “Stevenbomb” to drop. Subscribe to a satellite TV package today to catch “Steven Universe” on Cartoon Network!