TV MISERY: ‘Steven Universe’ Season 1, Ep. 1-26 Ranked

Steven Universe FeaturedCartoon Network’s Steven Universe is the utopian ideal of a children’s animation, or at least it’s become so over time. Originating in the same superficially silly tone of Adventure Time‘s early years, the first season of the show was a far cry from the breathlessly progressive installments that make it essential today. Just as its pudgy, endlessly cheerful protagonist sheds his childish immaturities, so has the series. It doesn’t make the early episodes unbearable or worthless. It’s satisfying to see a show gradually find its legs and hone its storytelling powers.

Still, there’s something special from the start about Rebecca Sugar’s tacitly feminist show, focusing on the hybrid adolescent of a human and a mineral-based alien Gem, the titular Steven, as he grows up with three aunt figures, the Crystal Gems, and the support of his van-inhabiting car wash attendant dad, Greg. Pearl is the manic, protective and neurotic figure in Steven’s life, Amethyst, his rebellious and mischievous influence, and Garnet is the figure of confidence, stability and effortless charm. Steven… is an often naive kid trying to be the kindest, most supportive person he can be.

There are far more irritating boy protagonists, especially since Cartoon Network’s had a history of foolish and destructive male protagonists. Johnny BravoCow and ChickenCourage the Cowardly Dog and Ed, Edd and Eddy were reliably amusing, but none had the positive benefits of character growth. In a lot of ways they were the works of a nihilistic era of children’s animation – Grim & Evil certainly was – but the channel’s contemporary programming has prioritized a sense of forward-moving progress, if not in plot then in its characters.

As Steven Universe is currently airing the remaining entirety of its third season this summer, with a new episode airing every weeknight at 7 p.m., now’s a good time to delve into its origins and rank episodes of each season. Since season one was rather mammoth-sized, airing between November 2013 and March 2015, it feels better to split it into two normal sized seasons. For this week we’ll rank the first 26 episodes of season one.

Steven Universe - Steven's Lion#26. Steven’s Lion (1×10)
Written by Lamar Abrams and Aleth Romanillos

Steven’s magical pink lion eventually proves to be a significant plot device of the show, but his first adventure is pretty pointless. No nourishing lessons, scarcely any progress, and a villainous pillow that commits the horrifying evil of… building sand castles.

Steven Universe - Arcade Mania#25. Arcade Mania (1×11)
Written by Lamar Abrams, Aleth Romanillos, and Luke Weber

“Humans find such fascinating ways to waste their time.”

In the early episodes of Steven Universe, Garnet is basically an emotionless machine, saving the world so proficiently it doesn’t seem she has any emotional weaknesses. Arcade Mania acknowledges that flaw in her, but wallows in it so deeply that it never feels like we or the characters grow from experiencing it.

Steven Universe - Together Breakfast#24. Together Breakfast (1×04)
Written by Ian Jones-Quartey, Rebecca Sugar, and Paul Villeco

“I don’t think I can eat this.”

An episode of superficial stakes that doesn’t move any overarching plot forward significantly. There are penty of these in the early going of every series. Together Breakfast has at least the slight purpose of casually revealing the geography of the Gems’ magical temple. It also features a demon breakfast sandwich attempting to kill Steven; but then, what breakfast sandwich doesn’t?

Steven Universe - Onion Trade#23. Onion Trade (1×15)
Written by Lamar Abrams

“It was more about the memories than the toy, but now we have new memories. Horrible, horrible memories.”

Onion is a silent, largely expressionless vehicle of destruction with no apparent friends. In that respect this episode is questionable for how satisfied it is with leaving him in social isolation, aside from a toy companion like the Noblets that soothe the depression of Mary and Max. This show can, and eventually does, do better than that.

Steven Universe - Serious Steven#22. Serious Steven (1×08)
Written by Joe Johnston & Jeff Liu

“Steven already figured that out!”
“Oh.”

Steven is essentially a nervous, impulsive child at the start of the show, and that tendency sticks far longer than you want it to. Serious Steven is basically about him confronting his childish past behavior as he tries to not be a burden to the gems. It’s an endearing step forward through a frustratingly slow character development.

Steven Universe - Gem Glow#21. Gem Glow (1×01)
Written by Joe Johnston & Jeff Liu

“He left his family behind!”

It’s not fair to hold high expectations for the fledgling episodes of any series; simply being able to locate something special is enough. Gem Glow introduces elements of the show’s alien mythology – the gems’ magical powers, the corrupted gem monsters, the emotional ties between Steven and his powers – a bit bluntly, and it’s silly of Steven to assume his powers derive from eating preservative-rich ice cream sandwiches, but there’s charm to his naivety. And the tragic story behind the jingle to a defunct snack brand is reliably smile-inducing.

Steven Universe - Frybo#20. Frybo (1×05)
Written by Raven Molisee & Paul Villeco

“As soon as I bared my butt, I knew he’d crack.”

The bizarre, disturbing and uncomfortable episode, you are my friend. Fueled by Steven’s ignorance, a possessed mascot costume allows Steven and PeeDee Fryman to air out their workplace grievances before doing battle with the demented monster they created. Steven doesn’t mature through the experience, eventually gracing the show with its first bare ass moment, but the childish lunacy of it is satisfying enough.

Steven Universe - Cheeseburger Backpack#19. Cheeseburger Backpack (1×03)
Written by Ian Jones-Quartey & Rebecca Sugar

“They can’t all be winners.”

If there’s a particular issue I have with show’s first episodes, it’s how the Gems’ overprotective attitude towards Steven limits his progress and their own. It’s clear that they sort of think Steven’s a foolish impediment to their missions, and… well, he is. The failure ending of Cheeseburger Backpack proves as much, but his unorthodox ideas have more value than they initially admit. Failure is inevitable, but there’s as much value in embarrassment as success.

Steven Universe - Steven the Sword Fighter#18. Steven the Sword Fighter (1×16)
Written by Joe Johnston & Jeff Liu

“Just wait a minute! You’re not my real brother!”

Steven’s still being desperately clingy of his parental figures. Then again, he does see one get killed this episode. Contained and in some ways pedestrian in its action, the humor comes from Steven’s naivety about action combat. “Boomerang blade,” he screams as he finds a boomerang’s essentially useless in real world combat, as opposed to samurai genre fare. Takashi Miike would be disappointed.

Steven Universe - Cat Fingers#17. Cat Fingers (1×06)
Written by Kat Morris, Hilary Florido, Ian Jones-Quartey, and Rebecca Sugar

“The lesson is you should always listen to me and never to Amethyst.”
“That’s fair.”

Rebecca Sugar remakes Akira with cats! That’s more or less the long and short of Cat Fingers, a nice match with Frybo as far as taking juvenile concepts and imbuing them with real menace. This is another episode introducing a small facet of mythology and expanding upon it with adorably off-kilter humor. It doesn’t have the disarming resonance of future episodes, but its warped re-appropriation of the aforementioned manga is gift enough.

Steven Universe - Bubble Buddies#16. Bubble Buddies (1×07)
Written by Kat Morris and Aleth Romanillos

“That’s what happens when you live at the beach and don’t swim and don’t have friends… you look at boats.”

Introducing a kid love interest without coming off as creepy or intrusive is tough to do, but Steven’s friend Connie is so instinctively antisocial that the introduction of Steven’s unpredictable presence only helps to broaden her horizons. Steven doesn’t talk to anyone for his own selfish benefit. He has a genuine concern and interest for others that’s rare enough for Connie to feel socially isolated by her circumstances. Their friendship is so naturally sweet that the eventual escalation to relationship won’t feel forced.

Steven Universe - Tiger Millionaire#15. Tiger Millionaire (1×09)
Written by Raven Molisee & Paul Villeco

It’d be some time before Steven Universe started teaching lessons about consent and social prejudice, but Tiger Millionaire, in dabbling in darker feelings of frustration and anger, takes a step towards relateable life lessons. Relieving stress that comes with even the most healthy, positive relationships can lead to bitterness and disillusionment, as it does for Amethyst and Steven. That doesn’t make it any less valuable or constructive an outlet.

Steven Universe - Laser Light Cannon#14. Laser Light Cannon (1×02)
Written by Kat Morris & Rebecca Sugar

“Let me drive my van into your heart.”

Enter Greg Universe, the show and Steven’s source of humbly winning guidance and nonchalance. While neither he nor Steven entirely learn anything through their confrontation with an alien super-weapon, it’s sweet to watch the two of them bond over their imperfect lives, literally personified by Greg’s cluttered garage. A treasure-trove of memories, Greg’s “Dad Museum” is a sweet sign of the artistic value placed in seemingly tacky junk. It’s something the seemingly perfect crystal gems must take to heart as their imperfections will slowly reveal themselves in time.

Steven Universe - Lion 2 the Movie#13. Lion 2: The Movie (1×17)
Written by Joe Johnston & Jeff Liu

“Is that in the book?”
“Eh, they’re taking some liberties.”

As far as YA blockbusters go, Dogcopter is sure exceeding the Divergent dross! On their way to see a kaiju threequel based on a critically beloved novel, Connie is astonished by the casual magic of Steven’s world, feeling herself unworthy and pointless by comparison. It’s a similar crisis to what Steven experiences in So Many Birthdays, but Connie’s found herself increasingly resourceful and determined in the face of conflict.

Steven Universe - Joking Victim#12. Joking Victim (1×21)
Written by Raven Molisee & Paul Villeco

“After all I do for you, you lie to me so you can sneak off with some other girl?”
“And other boys!”

I think Lars may stealthily be the best catalyst for human conflict on the show. Willfully agitated at everything, with a penchant for cruelty he seems largely ignorant to, he’s the kind of problematic friend you still strive to make time for. For Sadie, he’s the asshole boyfriend, and while Steven may be a sweeter, kinder surrogate, it’s Lars’ insensitive behavior that at once irritates and charms her. He still deserves to pay for his mistakes, but not to be condemned for them.

Steven Universe - So Many Birthdays#11. So Many Birthdays (1×13)
Written by Raven Molisee & Paul Villeco

“I thought violence would be the answer.”

Steven starts contemplating mortality when he discovers Amethyst, Garnet and Pearl don’t age and don’t see the point in celebrating birthdays any more. Of course thinking about death only brings you closer to it, literally as Steven rapidly ages. Watching the gems utterly fail to save Steven is hilarious, especially when Garnet makes the hilarious miscalculation of violence. It’s only in seeing value in his existence that Steven finds a new lease on life, or at least a rejuvenation of his old one.

Steven Universe - Monster Buddies#10. Monster Buddies (1×23)
Written by Lamar Abrams & Hellen Jo

“I don’t know how you eat with an eyeball in your mouth.”

Steven’s quintessentially well-meaning attitude towards his supposed enemies continues to be a primary source of sweetness on the show. Monster Buddies returns to the show’s first villain with a redeeming heart, canceling the oversimplified assumptions of that episode, and actually evoking genuine heartache for those so broken the Gems aren’t able to help them yet.

Steven Universe - Rose's Room#9. Rose’s Room (1×19)
Written by Joe Johnston & Jeff Liu

“Well the important thing is family and friendship, honesty, values and no one got arrested!”

I’m not sure how many more engaging episodes Steven Universe can make out of Steven realizing the world doesn’t revolve around him, but Rose’s Room does a good job visually conveying the limits of living according only to your own desires. It also slyly sends up the show’s own formula of attaching vague life lessons to unexplained grievances.

Steven Universe - Giant Woman#8. Giant Woman (1×12)
Written by Joe Johnston & Jeff Liu

“You’re no son of mine!”

Fusion is the single-most defining characteristic of Steven Universe, and as small a showcase as it gets in Giant Woman, the episode underlines the show’s growing focus on relationships and the difficulty in maintaining them. The only thing that brings Pearl and Amethyst, wholly disparate characters, is their love and concern for Steven, who’ll find room in his heart for a goat given five seconds with it. It’s also the show’s first music moment, though the utilization of Magnolia standout Aimee Mann for just one line will forever confound me.

Steven Universe - Lars and the Cool Kids#7. Lars and the Cool Kids (1×14)
Written by Lamar Abrams & Matt Braly

“I think I died.”

Steven only knows as much about his mom as he learns from Greg and the Gems. The rest is instinctive, and Lars and the Cool Kids is all about Steven learning to act on his instincts and how Lars doesn’t know how to. He spends so much time changing himself to appeal to others that nobody can appreciate him for who he really is. Steven is endlessly guileless, never false and always loving. This is the exceptional episode where doesn’t have to learn anything; he already is the answer.

Steven Universe - Beach Party#6. Beach Party (1×18)
Written by Lamar Abrams

“Oh, you young people and your experimental diets.”
“I am much older than you.”

Some of the best early Steven Universe episodes tend to focus on how the world treats unexplained events. In Beach Party, it’s with anger and rejection, something the Gems don’t seem bothered by, but which Steven can’t sit by and allow. It allows for a lot of fun conflict – I think the Pizza family may just be the most charming family unit in Beach City – and it’s a sweet call for playful coexistence, even if the point escapes the Gems.

Steven Universe - An Indirect Kiss#5. An Indirect Kiss (1×24)
Written by Raven Molisee & Paul Villeco

“You’ll never have any real magic powers, and we don’t want anything more to do with you.”

Steven’s relationship to his mom is muddled to say the least, guided by indistinct feelings of nameless loss. Here she’s a monolith, visible but inaccessible. It speaks to his obscure sense of loss, how confusing it is to have no emotional connection to someone you know you’d have loved. It’s something he can only access through his compassion for his present friends, namely Amethyst and Connie, who walks away having grown in confidence and self-esteem from her friendship with Steven. As both tacit romance and expression of grief, it’s a lovely capsule.

Steven Universe - Mirror Gem#4. Mirror Gem (1×25)
Written by Raven Molisee & Paul Villeco

“You three knew I was in there and you did nothing! Did you even wonder who I used to be?”

Low on jokes, but big on heart and necessary conflict, Mirror Gem not only lends Steven agency, but a higher moral compass than the often rigid Crystal Gems. As he befriends a magical mirror which the gems only barked orders at, we see his capacity for understanding drive him against the Gems’ orders and, in the show’s most intense moment yet, harm one of them. The emergence of Lapis Lazuli again calls into question their judgment and shows how much they have to learn from Steven, not simply the other way around.

Steven Universe - Coach Steven#3. Coach Steven (1×20)
Written by Raven Molisee & Paul Villeco

“There are different ways of being strong.”
“But I want to be strong in the *real* way.”

Coach Steven is the first Steven Universe episode with serious emotional stakes hanging in the balance, not simply in terms of mortal threat, but personal one. Early series Steven is receptive to the vision of physical strength and boisterous confidence that Garnet and Amethyst’s arrogant fusion Sugilite (perfectly voiced by Nicki Minaj). For Pearl, whose strength comes from craftiness and resilience, her fear isn’t just that Steven will learn the wrong lessons, but that she’ll lose Garnet and Amethyst’s more distinct qualities in the process. Some relationships are toxic to those around them, even if the members of them aren’t individually.

Steven Universe - Steven and the Stevens#2. Steven and the Stevens (1×22)
Written by Joe Johnston & Jeff Liu

“I learned to stay true to myself by watching myself die.”

What the holy hell just happened? In Steven and the Stevens we basically see the corruption and destruction of our main character several times over. I never thought of narcissism as a particularly susceptibility of Steven’s, but here we see him confronted by his own irritating and arrogant wants and desires, struggling to assert his dominance as the true Steven, only to lose sight of what that means. It’s an endlessly hysterical, at times even disturbing, episode, leagues beyond the idle lesson-learning of the show’s prior episodes.

Steven Universe - Ocean Gem#1. Ocean Gem (1×26)
Written by Joe Johnston & Jeff Liu

“Guys, I just had the best idea for an album cover.”

The big action-oriented episodes of Steven Universe are becoming a dazzling showcase of the show’s emotional potency and imagination. Picking right where Mirror Gem left off, Steven, Connie, Greg and the Gems go on a unified mission to save the ocean from a furious Lapis Lazuli. The aqua-clones of the Gems are a sly visual allusion to Lapis’ forced purpose, but ultimately Steven’s conscience wasn’t misguided in trusting her. He just needed to find his own way of helping her. If the outsized first season were split in two, this would be a fitting and exhilarating cut-off point.

Come back this time next week for the 2nd half of Steven Universe: Season 1 ranked.

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