Morgan Watches Steven Universe: Season 0

As I said way back when I started Da Blog eleven and a half years ago (!), I’ve always fancied myself as someone who doesn’t jump on the hot new fad all the time, and despite spending way too much time on TV Tropes and spending plenty of time in contact with various fandoms, I’ve usually found it pretty easy to resist jumping on whatever show or other thing is the hot new thing on the Internet, with my usual reaction being an eyeroll, shaking my head, and at best observing it from a distance. Homestuck was the main exception, because at the time it was taking over cons across the nation I fancied myself a webcomic reviewer, specifically one of “popular” webcomics, and I sure as hell couldn’t let Homestuck go unreviewed (and as much of a reason as any that I kept reading Homestuck was that no one else in the “webcomic blogosphere” was covering it on a regular basis, leaving it up to me to give it the kind of deep analysis other story-based webcomics got, which now seems kind of laughable in retrospect considering the directions Homestuck fandom started going in after I started reading it). But somehow, someway, my involvement with Homestuck has gotten me to start watching Steven Universe.

Near as I can tell, this is how it happened: As I obliquely referred to in my post on Homestuck‘s ending, I’ve found myself following numerous “liveblogs” of Homestuck that allow me to relive it vicariously through people reading it for the first time. The sizable audience crossover between Homestuck and SU and general monolithic presence of SU on Tumblr meant that there were of course several SU references to be found that I wouldn’t get, and on occasion, the Tumblr dashboard I only set up to send messages to liveblogs would recommend SU liveblogs to me, which I only looked at for just long enough to determine that they weren’t HS liveblogs. But then I started following one liveblog in particular that was particularly heavy on the SU references and in fact was created by someone who served as screener for the Loreweaver Universe liveblog (which actually has its own TV Tropes page). At some point they started liveblogging new episodes of SU as they came out as well, which meant interrupting the HS liveblog, and while at first I just stayed away during SU liveblogs and only took enough interest to know when things would be getting back to HS, eventually I ended up reading enough of it to become engrossed enough in what was going on to read and follow along, even if only by proxy. Then earlier this month the show aired two episodes that culminated in a major revelation that took several days to fully digest, and around the same time I discovered Loreweaver’s episode rating list that tied right into my weakness for order and lists, one thing led to another, and pretty soon I’d read Loreweaver’s liveblogs of his top 60 episodes and numerous others besides (not to mention most of the show’s TV Tropes pages), leaving me with enough detailed knowledge of the show that I figured I might as well be able to say I’ve actually watched the darn thing.

Honestly, this keeps happening. “Blogs” still felt as much of a buzzword as anything else when I started one, my more general disdain for social media didn’t stop me from jumping on Twitter, I’ve already talked about Homestuck, and there’s probably others besides where I witnessed their popularity from afar, considered myself “too cool” for them, and ended up jumping on board anyway. And so often when I jump on a new work of fiction with an established fanbase I always end up regretting not jumping on board earlier and been part of it through what I would consider its peak, as was the case with just about every webcomic I kept reading after I reviewed them – even Homestuck, for which I was around when it broke the Internet, I still felt like I jumped on board while it was in the later stages of its peak. One of these days I want to be the hipster that can say I was into it before it was cool. I don’t know if that’ll ever actually happen – normally TV shows aren’t the sort of thing I can easily commit to watching (not least of the reasons why being that that’s time I’d rather spend working on more productive blog posts) and I don’t review webcomics anymore – but if the opportunity presents itself I’m not going to hesitate to jump on board. I’m tired of considering myself “too cool” for anything anymore. If something’s all the rage on the Internet for smart reasons (not because it’s a stupid meme), I’m not going to be caught joining the party late again.

As alluded to earlier, because the whole reason I’m doing this is because I already know just about everything, I’m not exactly coming into this blind. People looking for unadulterated reactions are probably going to be disappointed, but I have tried (and probably failed) to clear my head enough before starting that at least some reactions are going to be genuine and I can at least get a sense of what it would be like watching without knowing what’s to come (after all, my original read-through of Order of the Stick was wildly out of order). To try and get through the first four seasons over the course of the one-month free trial Hulu offers, I planned to watch four or five episodes a night, though at this point things may become more free-form as watching episodes has proven to take substantially longer than I originally expected. I originally wanted to use a hashtag to denote my live thoughts as I’m watching on Twitter, but I ended up starting a separate account, @MorganWatchesSU, which you can follow for my thoughts as I watch each episode. This summary post was originally intended to be a compilation of my tweets as I was watching, but I quickly proved to have so much to say that any such post, even if limited to the “highlights” and using the ability to display parent tweets in embedded tweets to cut down on size, would be too long for comfort. Instead these summary posts will be more for broader analysis of each season. As we go along and the show goes further into Cerebus Syndrome, I may feel moved to write detailed analysis posts after selected episodes (the first of which may come after my very next episode as soon as Monday), not dissimilar to what I used to write for webcomics, and for those I’ll try to write from the perspective of someone who’s only up to that episode. I also have a few more ideas for projects adjacent to the show that I may end up instituting as well. All posts on these topics, as well as links to my tweet chains for each episode (that I don’t do a deeper analysis post for), will be available on this page.

The first season is twice the length of the other seasons with a midseason finale that serves as the starting point for the overarching plot and which, apparently, the creators have called the “true” start to the show. When split, they seem to usually be called season 1a and 1b, but given the first half’s status as a prelude to the “true” show, I’m referring to that half as season 0.

And unfortunately, that prelude status also means I don’t really feel like I can fairly assess it.

(Note: I’m not going to bother introducing the premise of the series or a lot of the background knowledge of what happens in the first 22 episodes or so, something I wouldn’t do for a webcomic review. If you don’t know any of that yourself, click the read-more at your own risk. If you feel the need to, read the character analysis at the bottom first.)

The problem is that until you get to the last few episodes (not necessarily just the midseason finale, as I’ll explain), you’re watching a very episodic comedy-action series with only hints of broader worldbuilding or continuity. If, as I tried to do, you try to watch the show as a casual viewer rather than sifting through details with a fine-toothed comb looking for subtle foreshadowing, it’s impossible to get into the right frame of mind to watch the show until you get to the end of the first half-season and the show starts forcing you to weigh a bunch of questions.

Because most fans don’t seem to think much of more than a handful of Season 0/1a episodes, I didn’t know a whole lot about the details of the plots of most of the episodes I watched going in, though I did have a vague sense of many of them. It was easy enough to get distracted by what spoilers I already knew that I could only really appreciate most of the revelations and hints that did come only by cross-checking against it, so it was impossible to get into a truly unspoiled frame of mind. I wouldn’t say the plots are rote given the setup, but in retrospect I felt like I was mostly just absorbing what happened in each episode. There were several episodes, both where I knew the details of the plots and where I didn’t, where I was bracing myself for having to deal with emotional torque (which triggered further spoilers that tainted my experience of each episode as I trawled TV Tropes pages looking for episodes likely to trigger it), but I managed not to disconnect entirely even in the scenes that should have most triggered it; the only place where I did, when Steven starts aging up in So Many Birthdays, was more a result of anticipation than having an actual problem, and it just left me unable to properly absorb and grasp what was going on, so it might not be as much of a problem as I initially feared in the immediate aftermath of that episode. Still, the fact that I kept pausing for that reason and others, beyond the need to write tweets, made it difficult for me to appreciate each episode as a whole. I also spent a significant amount of time looking for clues to how much the people of Beach City actually know about the Crystal Gems in order to try and contextualize a plot point in Ocean Gem, only for the actual development of that plot point to throw a wrench into what I thought I knew.

It was the two episodes leading up to the midseason finale that really started to make me insecure about how I was treating the series. Both Monster Buddies and An Indirect Kiss have major plot developments that help set up the direction of the series following the midseason finale, but what caught me off guard about them was how they recontextualized how I should appreciate the series. If you asked me what my favorite episodes of the series so far would have been before starting those episodes, I would have favored fun episodes with a focus on action, comedy, and/or character and minimal emotional torque, like Serious Steven, Lion 2: The Movie, and Steven and the Stevens (which would have been the last episode at that point). I wouldn’t have favored the episodes favored by fans (and even livebloggers that have less of a grasp of what’s to come), Giant Woman or Coach Steven (I actually think Coach Steven fumbles its intended message by overusing the word “strong” or phrase “strong in the real way” without taking enough care to make clear which meaning is meant at any given time), because I wouldn’t have absorbed the plots of those episodes as more than just data to take in to my account of what I knew about the series, and I would have been biased against the emotional torque those episodes brought. I could accept that Giant Woman had character development, a coherent plot, some good action, the introduction of an important concept, and a moment that consistently tugs at even my hardened heart whenever I think about it when Opal affirms she still has Pearl and Amethyst’s memories of Steven by singing his “Giant Woman” song back to him, but it didn’t bring the same sort of positive emotional impact as my preferred episodes so I couldn’t look back on it as fondly.

In many ways, Monster Buddies and An Indirect Kiss fall into the same category as Giant Woman – they’re well-put together but don’t trigger the same sort of joy more mindless episodes might – but the difference was I really felt like I should have a higher opinion of them than I did, that I should have more of a reaction to how the plot of each episode played itself out and the emotion each episode was evoking, and that my failure to do so meant I couldn’t properly appreciate Giant Woman, or indeed any of the previous episodes, either. In fact I kind of did have that reaction to An Indirect Kiss, considering I refrained from tweeting for pretty much the entire back half of the episode. Besides dropping important hints about the nature of the monsters the Gems fight and the Gems’ approach to them, as well as truly laying the foundation for Steven’s “magical destiny” (to use Connie’s phrase), Monster Buddies had a compelling boy-and-his-pet plot that carried the whole episode and a heartbreaking yet hopeful ending. Besides the ending heralding a status quo change for a character that had only appeared in three episodes to that point and thus a change whose import wouldn’t be apparent yet, An Indirect Kiss made clear just how close Pearl was to Rose Quartz and how badly she took losing her, had Steven wrestling with his feelings – or lack thereof – about never truly knowing his mother, and ended its main flashback with what would probably more appropriately be called “emotional torque” than how I use the term, which may or may not be better termed “dramatic tension”.

The Mirror Gem/Ocean Gem finale manages to mold both the well-put-together plot line of the preceding episodes with the exciting action of the climax of Lion 2: The Movie, but it also fully jolted me out of my complacency with regards to trying to watch the series from an unspoiled perspective. The way in which it started the plot prompted me to do a truly in-depth analysis of the implications of the episodes that quickly grew out of control. I’ll have that as my first in-depth analysis post on Monday, which will likely be followed by at least one more in quick succession, and it should be considered as much a part of my analysis of the season as a whole as anything else.

Character Analysis (I’m really only doing this because it’s a fairly common feature of liveblogs and it’ll allow me to make season-ending posts even if I can’t sum up the whole season outside the finale, even though I could have fit my finale analysis in this post if I didn’t include it):

2018-06-09 (8)Steven: Though the series starts out with the premise in the show description – that Steven is just looking to find some way, any way to be useful even if he doesn’t have as much control over his powers as the full Gems – by the time we even hit the midpoint of the “season” his role in the Gems becomes increasingly apparent. His emotional, caring side leads him to seek out nonviolent solutions and just try to make friends and get along, whether it’s with the people of Beach City, various nonhuman creatures the other Gems would otherwise consider nothing but a threat, or trying to get the Gems themselves to get along when they might otherwise be at each others’ throats (especially Pearl and Amethyst, whose personalities tend to mix like oil and water). Although he manages to do this without actually using powers much, even the nature of his powers hint at this, starting with the very first episode when we see his gem “weapon”: a shield, a defensive-oriented weapon contrasting with the other Gems’ offensive weapons, eventually joined by healing powers towards the end of the season. As has been noted, having the boy of the group constantly try to make friends while his three female parental figures tend to fight first and ask questions later is a nice reversal of typical gender roles, though this early on it could just as easily contrast naive youth with cynical, hardened adulthood.

Perhaps more to the point, the other problem with reducing Steven’s role to a simple gender-role reversal is that his powers, and other things we learn over the course of the season, pretty strongly imply that Steven is simply filling the role Rose Quartz once filled. Rose had the same healing powers and, it’s implied, same shield as Steven, and Pearl paints her as caring for every living thing there was no matter how small or ugly. Assuming Steven didn’t just pop out exactly as we see him to start the series when he was “born”, you get the sense the years when Rose was gone but Steven wasn’t old enough to interact with the Gems in any meaningful way may have been critical in the Gems’ demeanor darkening considerably without her counterbalancing effect, without her telling them they don’t always have to jump into battle against whatever gem thing they encounter – something that seems particularly explicit in the case of Pearl, who does not seem to have taken Rose’s loss well. But now we’re getting into…

2018-06-09 (5)The Crystal Gems: This early on, the Gems seem to have fairly flat personalities. Amethyst is a wild child prone to immature, irresponsible behavior (though she does seem to have been around the Gems for at least a couple hundred years) and ends up acting as more of a sister to Steven than a mother, Pearl is neurotic almost to the point of OCD and so ends up clashing with Amethyst’s more chaotic nature a lot, and Garnet stoically stands around, makes pronouncements, and punches things. Because of her “heightened perception” the other Gems tend to defer to Garnet as leader, but while she’s able to decide when to go on missions, where, and what to do on them, she seems to step in to interactions between the gems only when they come into conflict, and otherwise is willing to let them do whatever they want even if she really shouldn’t, as seen with Amethyst in both Steven the Sword Fighter and Coach Steven.

While Pearl is the gem that seems to act the most like a parent to Steven, Garnet may be the better parent, at least from Steven’s perspective, because of her tendency to trust his instincts while Pearl is more likely to be overprotective. Garnet asks him to “maintain the harmony” between Pearl and Amethyst in Giant Woman, invites Steven to come with her to explore the deathtraps in Serious Steven, and allows him to attempt to tame the Centipeedle in Monster Buddies, the latter two over Pearl’s objections. As such, Garnet better allows Steven to come into his own and grasp his legacy and his eventual role on the team. As Amethyst shows, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean Garnet’s approach is always the best one. There could easily come a time where Garnet’s trust in Steven only ends up putting him in serious danger and they would have been better off letting Pearl keep him out of the fray. Had Steven failed to tame the Centipeedle as much as he did, his life would have been at risk and the Gems would be hindered in their ability to protect him by Garnet acceding to his wish for them to keep their distance. But Garnet is willing to protect Steven when it counts and certainly didn’t accede to his wishes in Mirror Gem, though that’s getting into the subject of Monday’s post(s).

2018-06-09 (4)Greg: Though Steven’s dad makes fairly regular appearances throughout the season, he’s rarely part of the plot and more often is just sort of there as someone Steven checks in with on occasion. After Laser Light Cannon and Cat Fingers, two of the first six episodes, he doesn’t really get a prominent role in the plot again until the finale. We can tell he’s been a more prominent part of Steven’s life than is apparent from the series so far, likely trying to give him as normal a life as he could given his ties with the Gems. Steven may have known him well enough to allow Rose’s titular Room to put together a facsimile of him that held together for longer than its versions of any of the other townspeople, though at this point it’s unclear how much of that may have been Rose’s experiences. He seems to usually stay away from “magic stuff” by agreement and isn’t entirely comfortable with who Steven is and what he does, but he loves him just the same.

2018-06-09 (2)Lars and Sadie: To this point, these are the two most prominent of the “townie” characters to the point of getting the honor of sharing the first scene of the series with Steven, which may or may not have something to do with being, apparently, characters SU creator Rebecca Sugar created in college before even conceiving of the show. If Steven needs to interact with townspeople that aren’t critical parts of the plot, it’ll usually be at the Big Donut with Lars and Sadie, and they also seem to be the default choice for side characters that get roped into the plot, as in Coach Steven, or to have nonmagical plots that get their own spotlight. The two of them, especially Sadie, are also the subject of (what at this point is) a rare episode that focuses primarily on them with little to no emphasis on magical stuff: Joking Victim.

That episode is also the most explicit at hinting at the prospect of a romantic relationship between them… but unfortunately, it does so in a way that makes that prospect more than a little uncomfortable. Sadie’s crush on Lars seems to be something out of the All Girls Want Bad Boys trope, and there’s no evidence that Lars, who acts like such an asshole around Steven and whose only real moment of non-assholery is when he cheers for Steven’s heel wrestling character until he blows off Lars’ request for an autograph, is any less of an asshole around Sadie, routinely taking advantage of her willingness to do extra work for him and only worming his way into Sadie’s heart, intentionally or no, by playing video games with her. The exact nature of what’s going through Sadie’s head seems to be complicated by the show’s odd inclination to tiptoe around the issue and the nature of love in general (Sadie’s awkward reaction to Steven’s “that must have been some video game!” seems to be generally taken to imply that, at the very least, video games weren’t the only thing that happened that night, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case and the prospect makes me very uncomfortable given Lars’ apparent age); her reaction to Lars bouncing on a trampoline with Jenny and the other (male) cool kids and boasting about faking his “back injury” is played as though he was cheating on her, which ends up making her seem clingier than was probably intended. Regardless, it doesn’t seem like a relationship with Lars is the healthiest route for her to go down, and it’s disappointing that it’s one of the two most prominent relationships the show has at this point, especially for a show known for its progressive treatment of gender roles and relationships. I hope the show doesn’t try to justify the “I can change him” attitude or otherwise romanticize a problematic situation or establish unrealistic expectations for girls.

I mentioned I had a few ideas for projects beyond the in-depth posts, and I’m hopeful they can provide me with a better way to end the season-ending wrap-ups than what I’m doing now. For now, stay tuned on Monday.

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