diamonds are a boy’s best friend

a look at cartoon network’s steven universe

We owe a great and unpayable debt to cartoons. They hold for us the power to look back: strong and reliable anchors to which we cling, mooring ourselves in the past. Countless Americans must remember with razor clarity the library card song from Arthur:

Having fun isn’t hard… When you’ve got a library card!

How can we not in an instant feel small again? Such childhood mementos left by cartoons find refuge in the mind, lodging there warmed and welcomed long after their arrival. So then, even if at first meant for the young, perhaps cartoons ultimately serve to keep us young, or at least to remind us of how it felt.

Such is certainly the case for Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, a program with its own fair share of catchy tunes that first aired in late 2013 and has just resumed its sophomore season. The series is a daydreaming gaze backward into the past of its creator, Rebecca Sugar, who retells with a sci-fi spin the tale of her relationship with her little brother, a bond she says has saved her life.

Sugar worked on the idea back when she was a writer for Adventure Time, but she stepped down from that role in order to fully commit to her own series. Less hectic and bombastic than Adventure Time, Steven Universe draws from the depths of the past the sweet charms and bittersweet sadness of being a little kid in a big world.

The story unfolds in the fictional town of Beach City, a coastal community modeled on Sugar’s creator’s home state of Maryland. The titular protagonist is based on Sugar’s little brother, also named Steven, who works as a background artist for the show. Unlike his now-adult real-life counterpart, pudgy youngster Steven Universe lives in an ancient beachside temple with three motherly alien warriors: Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. Together, these otherworldly beings form the Crystal Gems, a group of rebel soldiers whose bodies are made of living gemstone and who arrived on Earth thousands of years ago.

As the first season unfurls, Steven learns that he too is a Crystal Gem—or half of one, to be precise—who must grapple not only with his strange newfound powers, but also with the humps and hurdles of everyday boyhood. The plot follows this curious team of outer space femme fatales and their hammy hybrid protégé as they fight to protect their adopted home planet from alien attack and destruction.

Despite an admittedly weird premise, the show has an unshakeable feel-good appeal. The main source of warm fuzzies in the show is Steven, a loveable runt adored by most everyone in town: the cool kids, the mailman, even the mayor. Above all though, Steven is loved by his three alien moms who enjoy hanging around with their baby boy as much if not more than going about their action-packed routine of monster slaying. Sugar has referred to the relationship between the Gems and Steven as a sort of reverse escapism, a setup where fantasy characters become interested in real life and want to participate in it. As an audience, this relationship makes us feel embraced by superheroes who are just as fascinated by us as we are by them.

Superheroes aside, the show owes part of its strength and success to its supercharged fandom, an avid group of supporters across all age groups, some of whom draft fan fiction, design cosplay, and create their own “gemsonas”—online personas used by fans to role play as Crystal Gems. And the feeling is mutual from Sugar’s end: she frequently shares updates on Twitter and Tumblr with fans and offers explanations and advice during Reddit AMAs. This intimate interaction between the real world and the imaginary, between fans and their fancies, seems to be neatly in keeping with Sugar’s philosophy of reverse escapism: a love affair between the beautiful and the banal.

Whatever’s happening with Steven Universe, it must be working, seeing as the show topped 2013 as the most watched show on Cartoon Network and continues to garner record views. The program shines bright amidst the many duds because, more so than its prime-time neighbors, Steven Universe is deeply rooted in the real world. If we can forget for a moment these crystalline Power Rangers and their magic weapons, we are left with a story of family, of a remembered past, of a wonderful time when we, little and learning, were important and cared for by the ones we love.

All in all, Rebecca Sugar has left little off the table for her interstellar smash hit. Entrancing and adorable (and renewed for a third season!), Steven Universe offers to older viewers a gentle portal to the past, and to the younger perhaps trail markers to revisit in time.