I am just going to start this with the obvious. Steven Universe is a cartoon on the Cartoon Network that can be a very transformative experience for viewers, and if you are not watching it, you are missing out on something that is, in a word, magical. While not only being one of the most progressive shows on TV for the weight and honesty of some of its subject matter, it also has a constant sense of awe and wonder, all wrapped up in a wickedly unique and original tale presented in pastel animation that will win over even the most hardened heart with its accessibility and charm.
The show is about a group of individuals called “the crystal gems” who have been fighting a centuries-long war against other “crystals”, to keep them from inhabiting Earth and taking over (and ultimately, destroying Earth for their own needs).
A boy named Steven Universe is birthed from a “Crystal Gem” mother and a human father, and in being born, the mother had to sacrifice her existence to bring him into the world. The remaining Crystal Gems then take Steven in as their own and begin to raise this first “hybrid” with as much love and understanding of BOTH worlds as possible. And it is Steven himself and his purity and charm that will pull you into his world, while the amazing character development of the Gems and surrounding characters will keep you there.
See, and you just thought it was a simple-minded cartoon. No, it really is anything but that, and that is why I am here to extol about the very best Steven Universe episodes on you all so you can cannonball into this world as quickly as I did, and maybe it will help save your life like it has helped saved mine (I found this show at a very dark time in my life and its innocence, art style, humor, and complexity very much got me through that time, sane and still alive. May it one day do the same for you).
Slight Spoilers ahead but nothing that will ruin the show, I promise.
(List is Presented In Chronological Order and NOT Order of Preference. All Episodes Mentioned are Fantastic.)
Season 1, Episode 4: Together Breakfast
An episode so charming, it has spawned people having actual “Together Breakfasts” with their friends and family, this Steven Universe episode quickly shows you to the relentless charm of the show, as Steven tries his all to get the three gems to sit and have breakfast together will him (a very special breakfast you can learn to make, by the way, but I won’t spoil here).
This was one of the first times we, as viewers, got to see the adorable and complex family dynamic between these four (Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl and Steven. Yes the gems are actual gems). It is also the episode you cannot help but fall in love with, which instantly makes you a lifelong fan.
Trust me. I am a grown-ass man and a slave to this show and totes okay with that.
Season 1, Episode 6: Cat Fingers
This is the episode of Steven Universe that leads to me knowing this show and I were going to have a fantastic relationship, even more so than Together Breakfast. To explain it to you will take a little more of an (not literal) dissection of the aforementioned Crystal Gems. These “ladies” (though gender on the show is not straight up identified, which is amazing in and of itself and wickedly progressive) have some amazing powers, and as the show progresses, Steven slowly learns he does, too, trying to master his abilities and figure out all their intricacies for himself.
In this episode, while trying to figure out some basic magic, Steven turns his fingers into kittens. Yes, you read that correctly and double yes, it is as f*cking fantastic as it sounds! This was the first time the true irreverence and sheer creativity of the show began to reveal itself to me. I mean, you shouldn’t even need more than “Kitten Fingers” to be sold.
Season 1, Episode 17: Lion 2, the Movie
Steven has a lion. A magical pink lion that, to tell you anymore about, would ruin its majestic badassery and the very enigma that is its existence initially. Suffice it to say, the complete Lion storyline gets broken into separate episodes, and Lion 2 was one that showed us Steven Universe fans that even simple things like pets in this world were another genesis to a great mystery and a good deal of mirth and magic, too.
I really want to tell you more about Lion but I’d be LION if I said it would ruin some surprises so I will just move along here and tell you all three parts (and more) of Lion’s story are fantastical episodes.
Season 1, Episodes 25 and 26: Mirror Gem and Ocean Gem
Yes, I am cheating and putting two entries into one BECAUSE they tell a two part story and introduce some major characters and major twists in the Steven Universe Universe, making it some of the best Steven Universe episodes, period. Again, I have reached a sort of journalistic impasse. To tell you too much here is to ruin the evolution of the story, but I will give you a weak synopsis just to give you an inkling into why it was chosen.
Up to this point in the show we know the gems can fuse into larger beings, and we knew there were other gems out there, but these two episodes are the first time we are introduced to two OTHER gems, one of them being the tortured-but-relatable Lapis Lazuli, who Steven unintentionally releases into the world. Another being…well, you’ll see.
Suffice it to say, not every gem is good-hearted.
Season 1, Episode 32: Fusion Cuisine
By this time in the show Steven has a sort of “girlfriend” named Connie who he’s been spending enough time with that her family wants to meet his. Problem is, Steven has a Dad named Greg (who pretty much “lives in a van, down by the river”) and his “Mom” are three celestial space-beings. So what does he do? He asks them to fuse and make one giant ‘super Mom’ who can show up and have dinner with Connie and her family.
Suffice it to say, a ‘giant woman’ (wink wink to fans) does not a good first impression make and the hijinks displayed here are like Meet the Parents on LSD. But in the end, Steven’s Dad’s undying love for him and the protection from the Crystal Gems Connie’s family see firsthand is enough to ensure that these two can keep hanging out.
Season 1, Episode 37: Alone Together
I will be completely honest here. Something so YUUUUGGGEEE (hashtag TrumpNation, hashtag, we all gonna die) happens in this episode (literally) that I refuse to expunge ANY 4-1-1 about it because it will take away some of the awe you will feel from the genuinely shocking moments (though not shocking in a bad way at all).
This is also the episode we learn that Connie and Steven’s relationship is much deeper and much more elaborate and crucial than any of us had any clue of.
Speaking of Steven and Connie’s relationship….
Season 1, Episode 42: Winter Forecast
This was THE episode that kind of saved my life, no joke. I got very sick and was pretty much dying, and for some reason, this episode (which I had literally watched days before I fell ill) just kept running through my mind and making me wonder about the rigid complexities of time and how our simple decisions branch out in millions of days we could never account for, Butterfly Effect style. That thought kept me conscious when life tried to do otherwise, but enough about me.
So Connie is hanging with Steven when a sudden blizzard is announced. They have an hour to get her home, and they dawdle and screw around (like kids oft do IRL). The storm hits and they get in an accident while driving her home and get trapped in a snow mound. This then leads Connie’s Dad to try to come help but he gets into an accident, too. At this point, Steven begins to have the ability to warp time (a temporary gift given to him by Garnet) and uses it in some cool ways to fix the dire mistakes made earlier in the episode. The tone goes from light to dark to light fluidly, and how many shows can do that in eleven minutes?
It also had an incredibly endearing final shot that will make you wish you were 12 again, trapped with your first crush in a snowstorm.
Season 2, Episode 6: Sworn to the Sword
Connie is a very interesting character, but up to this point, she wasn’t given too much time for character development. She had expressed insecurity before about being so close with someone so interesting (Steven and the Gems), and that making her feel unworthy, but this was the episode when Connie went from “adorable, semi-girlfriend” to badass character with her own skills. In this case, as if you couldn’t tell from the title of the episode, Connie learns to sword fight and learns the ways of the blade from Pearl (who is a deft warrior, ‘created’ for that exact purpose). Connie takes to the ways of the blade very quickly and in future episodes after this when he sees her in the opening of the show in the street when the van goes by, and she has the sword with her. Up to that point in the show, she always had a book with her. How cool is THAT for character development and evolution?!
It is little touches like that and those little flourishes that make Steven Universe such an easy show to become smitten with. It also shows you the very progressive attitude the show has towards gender roles, gender norms, and societal expectations of certain genders based on those norms. A theme you will consistently see reflected on the show, through relationships, both gay and straight (which is amazing to see represented SO WELL in a cartoon, of all things).
Very few shows on TV, animated or not, breach the taboo as effortlessly and classily as Steven Universe, shedding those very taboos in the process. Hollywood could learn a great deal from this show.
Speaking of learning a great deal….
Season 2, Episode 22: The Answer
There are things about the Crystal Gems I have not yet told you and held back from telling you on purpose. As mysterious and ambiguous as I was when describing the Alone Together episode is also what is going to happen here, only because what unveils in this episode is so lovely and moving and unique that telling you about it would suckle any of the joy out of the actual episode and its many twists.
I will say this, though. This episode gives both Steven and the viewers some genuine insight into Garnet (who up to this point is a genuinely guarded character who shows little emotion). Also, Blue Diamond first appears here and wow, just wow.
Season 3, Episode 8: Mr. Greg
At this point, all I should have to say is “full-on musical episode of Steven Universe” and you should be running to your on-demand and praying it is there. For doubters, I will now include some of my favorite Steven Universe songs.
Speaking of which, I would be remiss not to mention music is INTEGRAL to Steven Universe and how DAMN GOOD the music is on this show will blow your mind. Also, this seems to be a core reason the show gets some amazing female vocalists to do the voices of some of the gem “fusions”. Examples being the stellar singer-songwriter Aimee Mann and rapper-pop icon Nicki Minaj, to name a few.
Here, peep some of these sick jams:
AND my personal fave outside of the intro song…
Oh, AND I almost forgot….
‘Onion Trade’ Episode from Season One
I f*cking love Onion. He is an insane character in an insane world who seems the most insane of all, yet never speaks a word. For that reason alone, I loved the Onion Trade episode because it is another example of what appears to be a rather simplistic character being far more complex than we first give him (her?) credit for.
Onion is also a creepy AF, which adds greatly to his maniacal-yet-reassuring presence on this fantabulous show. Who is he, what is he? Who cares, respect the Onion, bow down before his wicked ways and enigmatic presence.
Lastly: Kindergarten’s Ties to Juno Ito’s Work
One of the scariest comics I have ever read was The Enigma of Amigara Fault by Manga artist and writer Juno Ito. It is an absolutely terrifying concept that you will never shake once you read it. So imagine my genuine shock when an episode of Steven Universe that introduces a crucial element (Kindergarten, where Amethyst was “born”) that just happens to reference that exact Junjo Ito work?!
I got chills the first time I saw Kindergarten on Steven Universe, further proving how genius and all-encompassing his world is. Don’t let the pastel visage fool you. As sweet as it is, there is some genuine nightmare fuel (and killer easter eggs) in there as well.
I think you get the point. You need this show in your life, and now you know where to start! Also, huge thank you to the show’s creator, @RebeccaSugar for creating a show so pure and genuine, it actually makes my life better.