Grok My Enthusiasm (38)

By: Robert Wringham
September 28, 2016

One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars.

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As a sleepy librarian played by Hector Mann, it’s unusual for me to grok something so new and cool and colourful as Steven Universe. But grok it I do. In the face of this cartoon show, all cynicism drifts away and I’m moved to excitedly rattle off a list of favourite characters to you like an overstimulated toddler. Stevonnie! Lion! Garnet! Sadie! There. I think I got away with it.

At the time of writing, Steven Universe is a fairly new and ongoing Cartoon Network series for which I’m probably not the intended audience. Having said that, I can’t help feel that its creator Rebecca Sugar may have set out to make something demographically transcendent and internationally uniting, as Jim Henson did with Fraggle Rock. I don’t know. Whatever her motivation, the cartoon she’s unleashed is an exciting, hilarious, moving, glamorous, inclusive, and kind creation.

Tell us more, grandpa? Okay. Steven is the fourth member of a Sailor Moon-like order of superbeings called the Crystal Gems. It’s Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl… and Steven. Why the ellipsis? Well, Steven’s not like the other Gems. That’s why he’s called Steven and not “Emerald” or something. He’s pudgy, unsophisticated and at first doesn’t seem to have any powers. He’s the silly one, a juxtapoz punchline like Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters or Clyde in Pacman. He can’t surf the pink and singing waves of the cosmos with the others, for unlike his teammates he’s part human.

At first Steven Universe looks like an episodic thing-of-the-week affair (albeit an inventive one: an early episode manages to be cute, trippy and creepy when Steven morphs into a conjoined mass of mewling cats) to be watched as one might watch SpongeBob SquarePants, but there’s an important cumulative narrative that’s worth staying unbaked for. After watching 100 episodes (look, they’re only ten minutes long), I can tell you that the Gems’ actions have consequences and that the plot advances as Steven’s powers mature. We learn that the Gems are exiles from a complex society of ancient aliens. New characters come forth from the background, each with their own motivations and appetites. Characters pair off and relate unpredictably to each other like modular furniture designed by Dali. Some of what happens is deeply surprising.

Politically, the show’s about seven years ahead of the curve. It’s been described as queer — which with its matter-of-fact portrayal of transgender characters and same-sex, polyamorous love, is probably true — but where it really shines is in post-gender sentiment. It doesn’t matter in Steven Universe (the Universeverse?) if you’re a girl or a boy or neither or both. Most of the characters are women and the overriding energy of the show is unmistakably, gorgeously yin, but the male characters are wonderful and aren’t written off as hapless douches.

It’s also geek-literate without being a daft bundle of references. It doesn’t rely on rewarding your knowledge of Harry and the Hendersons or Hulk the Slayer. It has sprouted from the leaf litter of thirty-odd years of pop culture in a similar way to The Venture Bros but it’s more relaxed about the sum of its parts and hence more mature despite being a cartoon ostensibly for children. Geekdom today, Steven Universe tells us, is a sorority, not a contest.

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GROK MY ENTHUSIASM: Rob Wringham on THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | Gordon Dahlquist on WEEKEND | Joe Alterio on MILLION YEAR PICNIC | Adrienne Crew on LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | Josh Glenn on THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | Alix Lambert on THE SKIES BELONG TO US | Adam McGovern on PENELOPE and CHAVEZ RAVINE | Rob Wringham on THE LYKE WAKE WALK | Mark Kingwell on NORTH STAR SNEAKERS & GWG JEANS | Gordon Dahlquist on FELLINI SATYRICON | Erik Davis on AH! | Devin McKinney on WHISPERING AFRAID | Mimi Lipson on 1973 SEARS ROEBUCK CATALOG | Jessamyn West on MOSS | Josh Glenn on THE SCOUT HOW BOOK | Brian Berger on SLACKER | Alix Lambert on ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS | Chelsey Johnson on MONOTREMES | Devin McKinney on THE BUTCHER COVER | Flourish Klink on ONE DIRECTION | Gordon Dahlquist on FULL METAL JACKET | Allegra Huston on CLOTHESLINE | Jenny Davidson on POWERLIFTING | Evan Narcisse on REZ | Deborah Wassertzug on VEGETARIAN MEATBALLS | Chris Spurgeon on WALLACE AND GROMIT | Mandy Keifetz on BENEFICIAL MICROBES | Annie Nocenti on MARKS ON WALLS | Molly Sauter on THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF | William Nericcio on LAND OF THE LOST | Dan Fox on “VOICE OF GOD” RADIO DJS | Brandi Brown on WIKIPEDIA TALK | Claire Lehmann on THE APPARATUS REVEAL | Alice Boone on COSTUME JEWELRY | Colin Dickey on WIDESPREAD PANIC | Anshuman Iddamsetty on THE FULL BODY PROJECT | John Hilgart on MAKING GRATEFUL DEAD ALBUMS | Rob Wringham on STEVEN UNIVERSE | John Overholt on DECKLE EDGES | James Hannaham on HABIT PATTERNS | Jessamyn West on THE PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM | Adam McGovern on THE SPACE GIANTS | Brian Berger on MEDIUM COOL | Chris Spurgeon on THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT | Joe Alterio on TABLETOP WARGAMING | Mimi Lipson on TRASH PICKING | Jason Grote on CZECH CINEMA | Roxane Gay on AUTOMATED CAR WASH | Dan Fox on JULIA DAVIS | Amy Thielen on BINGO | Steph Burt on FEIJOA.

MORE ENTHUSIASM at HILOBROW

#SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST! & dozens of other squads | GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other new wave songs. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other fantasy novels from 1934–43. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other old-school hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.

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