Empire City, Great Music and Steven Universe's Summer Adventures: Week One

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Empire City, Great Music and <i>Steven Universe</i>'s Summer Adventures: Week One

Each week, Zach Blumenfeld writes about the best highlights from Cartoon Network’s “Summer of Steven.”

You know, this hiatus really wasn’t all that bad. For a show renowned for its irregular schedule, a month-and-a-half-long break in the middle of Season 3 actually felt sort of refreshing—especially given the thickness of the plot that went down over the five-episode course of “In Too Deep.” A massive fusion battle, the near-destruction of Earth, Steven almost getting dropped in the ocean, some serious roommate drama, the most important game of baseball ever played... that was heavy stuff.

The first week of “Steven’s Summer Adventures,” in contrast, felt something like a return to normalcy: just a bunch of wacky, one-off vignettes with great characters and powerful messages, the way this show’s first season felt before the Homeworld Gems burst onto the scene and screwed everything up. “Steven Floats,” the first episode of the week’s run, seemed incredibly self-aware in that respect. Steven wasn’t just speaking for himself when he exclaimed, “We’re finally home!”... he was speaking for a lot of the fan base and probably for the Crewniverse as well. We have to imagine Rebecca Sugar and company were at least missing Beach City after setting the last 12 episodes at the barn, if not hating the barn outright (Pearl certainly had some negative thoughts about it in “Mr. Greg”).

The return to the beach house and Steven’s little seaside town gave us back a whole bunch of characters we didn’t even remember we missed, mostly because Peridot had been busy stealing the show. It gave us back the OG Crystal Gem lineup, too, if only for “Steven Floats,” which, it must be said, was a truly remarkable exercise in nostalgia. Revive the classic Garnet-Amethyst-Pearl dynamic, meditate upon death and the absurd meaningless of life (we live in a world where your donut might be fed to a dog), and introduce a fun new power for Steven all in one fell swoop? Not many shows could have accomplished such a trifecta.

So of course. the week that Steven returns to Beach City, the show’s best episode—maybe ever—takes place in Empire City. Presenting…

MR. GREG

...the moment that Steven Universe fully realized its long-recognized musical potential. Since the gorgeous Peace and Love graced the January episode “It Could’ve Been Great,” we’d had zero songs; “Mr. Greg” gave us five.

As any fan of the show will know, Steven features some of the best songwriting on television, using music not only to further the narrative but also to explore the emotional depths of its characters at times when a lengthy monologue would fall flat. We’ve heard Amethyst wax introspective about her feelings of inadequacy; Greg has outlined his rock star dreams in the stars; whenever Steven himself sings, it’s almost always to express empathy. But Pearl’s songs trump the others, because they’re the only surefire way to get her neurotic, overbearing, often haughty wall down and expose the heartbroken, listless spirit within. When she performs her Broadway-inspired ballads, her damaged soul becomes simultaneously more palpable and more piteous, a portrait of unreckoned-with grief and unrequited love.

Tension between Pearl and Greg has seemed natural since it first became obvious that Pearl felt that way about the dearly departed Rose. That tension morphed into readily apparent rivalry in the flashback episode “We Need To Talk.” Greg did have a talk in that episode… with Rose. In “Mr. Greg,” he finally sat down with Pearl to discuss both their cold war and the raw, shared grief for their beloved that runs beneath the surface of their enmity. It was brutal, it involved a vulnerability neither character is used to showing, and it could only have happened through the emotional portal of music.

The reason grief is such a complex, painful emotion is that it forces us to stare into what existentialists call “the void”—that awful, gaping awareness of our own mortality that demands that we consider the purpose of purpose itself. In the face of emptiness and absurdity, words lose their meaning and can no longer be used to easily express our feelings. Of course, talking helps in that it establishes a bond of trust, but the only permanent solution to grief is to silently and steadfastly accept death’s inevitability, then move past it and appreciate the wonder of life and shared experience. Accordingly, the irony of Steven singing “Why don’t you talk to each other” is that most of Greg and Pearl’s real progress happened outside of their actual conversation, in their beautifully animated dance to Steven’s beautifully performed, Peter Gabriel-esque love song of sorts. Steven Universe understands the power of music better than most shows on television, and more importantly, it perfectly executes the vast majority of its musical ideas.

Speaking of which, everything about “It’s Over,” Pearl’s powerhouse showstopper, is flat-out incredible. Let me count the ways in which this song is the best the Crewniverse has featured to date:

The melody. “It’s Over” is a showtune, not a pop song, but its chorus worms its way into your head and lodges itself in your auditory cortex with barbed hooks.

The lyrics. “It’s Over” is simultaneously concise and verbose, descriptive and simple. Things don’t get much bleaker than “It’s over, isn’t it… why can’t I move on?”

The musical build-up. As with “Do It For Her,” Pearl’s other song about Rose, “It’s Over” begins softly with a piano, then climaxes into a full, moving string section as Pearl comes to fully face her shattered heart.

The glorious choreography. The obvious reason for “Mr. Greg” to take place in Empire City is that Greg and Pearl could never have stepped this far out of their safe zone in the comfort of their home, but holy moly did the animators take full advantage of their fresh setting. The city background behind Pearl is absolutely gorgeous and perfectly complements both her tuxedo and her emotionally charged dance.

The little details. The way a tear clings to Pearl’s chin; Steven’s slow-developing, stunned reaction; Pearl’s use of the pink rose throughout, right up to her theatrical toss of it into the nothingness beyond the hotel balcony.

“Mr. Greg” was very obviously the centerpiece of this first week’s run of Steven Universe, its beating heart and the well-deserved highlight. It was also really funny, from the awkwardness of Steven clarifying that Rose would be traveling with them, to the shenanigans of the clone-waiter troupe, and it probably needed to be; without the comic relief, the Greg-Pearl tension would have been both overwhelming and not as effective.

But wait, there was a lot of other stuff that happened, too!

YOUR REGULAR REMINDER THAT STEVEN IS 14

Steven’s emotional maturity and precocious sense of empathy wouldn’t be as stunning if he didn’t also frequently showcase his childish attributes. Maybe he’s so wise around the Gems because he literally contains his mother’s consciousness in his belly button, but put him in other situations and he’s wont to act like a normal, early-adolescent boy.

He understands love as it pertains to Greg, Pearl and his mother, but when it comes to Lars and Sadie, he’s clueless. To Steven, love is love, and there isn’t yet room for nuances like bad boy attraction or the idea of coyness—and sure, constant, universal sincerity would make things a hell of a lot clearer, but that isn’t a realistic possibility, nor will it ever be.

He can feel the resentment that Pearl has harbored since Greg came into her life and helps her resolve it, but he finds himself overcome by the emotion when it comes to Kevin, the arrogant creep who once hit on him and Connie at a dance. Those of us who have dealt with real-life pricks know how hard it is to keep them out of our thoughts—that’s their true power—but it’s still a bit of a shock to see Steven so riled up and foggy-headed. Fortunately, he’s got Connie, and together they’re able to help each other past their obsession and into a new realm of self-respect. (It’s also important to point out that Stevonnie’s joint decision to let go of their beef with Kevin is another example of how Steven Universe is destroying archetypal masculinity, which would have dictated that the only way to defeat Kevin would have been to win their race.)

So what can we make of Steven? Are his struggles to relate to other humans normal for a boy his age, or are they the result of the half-alien nature that makes him an ideal bridge between his two constituent species? Probably both, and that’s a huge part of what makes him such an outstanding character. Kids can grow alongside Steven, a role model who shows them that having a rough time dealing with people is normal, even for a naturally empathetic hero, and that what really matters is making an honest, earnest effort to do the right thing.

#SHORTYSQUAD4LYFE

Peridot only made one appearance this week, and predictably, she stole the show. There was a lot of juicy detail to pick through in “Too Short To Ride,” including Peridot and Amethyst’s growing friendship, Mr. Smiley showing us the exhaustion of an American small business owner, the return of cat fingers, and one of the better “Twitter” profiles ever created.

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Apparently, Peridot’s seen bigger beaches and bigger cities on Homeworld.

But the main takeaway from this episode was Peridot’s relationship with technology flipping on its head. We’ve known for a long time that she derives power from tools rather than her physical form (now we know it’s because Homeworld is running out of resources—a not-so-subtle analog to the situation on Earth), so of course when she’s given a tablet, it immediately takes over her life. It’s only the combination of losing her newfound toy and Amethyst’s “realness” that unlocks her inborn ability, an ability that might be unique among Era 2 Peridots because our Peridot is the only one on a planet that allows Gems to break their mold. Say goodbye to self-pitying Peri and hello to Steven Universe’s first metalbender, a now-formidable force who’s only going to become more confident in herself and new rebel identity. Yes, Peridot’s probably going to continue acting like a child, but there’s no longer an excuse for her to turn to tech as a solution for her insecurity. Given how much time modern people spend on screens every day—especially in light of the Pokemon Go craze—”Too Short To Ride” serves as an important reminder that we need to spend at least some time unaided by tools if we’re ever to reach our full potential.

AND NOW, SEVEN THOUGHTS

The top three movies on Sadie’s shelf, ranked: Caligula: The Documentary; The Organ Pickler, Part VII; Exposed Brunch.

Steven’s going to be the toilet-side morale guy in his college dorm… if he ever goes.

We finally have definitive proof that avocados aren’t the perfect food in every situation.

Mr. Smiley sure goes to court a lot… tough biz, owning The Big Donut and Funland.

Peridot and the alien has been hinted at for a long time… love, actually, at long last!

Perhaps Sour Cream’s concert for ants should’ve taken place at the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good.

Dogcopter: Turn Off The Bark is still playing in Empire City. Steven has to see it eventually, right? Now that Greg has all that money?



Follow Zach Blumenfeld on Twitter for lots of aimless musing, Steven-related or otherwise.

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