If there’s anyone out there who still thinks cartoons are only for children, they simply haven’t been paying attention. Even discounting adult-oriented shows like Rick & Morty and Bojack Horseman, the animated spectrum of television has never been more appealing to older audiences than it is now.
Smart, appealing animated shows must toe the line between creating a world that children can understand while still remaining interesting to people who expect more substance in their entertainment, and shows like Star Wars Rebels, We Bare Bears, and Adventure Time all do this wonderfully.
Another example, and perhaps the best of its genre, is Steven Universe.
Steven Universe tells the story of Steven, a half-human, half-alien boy whose extraterrestrial lineage comes through his mother, a warrior named Rose Quartz who fought thousands of years in the past to free Earth from her own planet’s rule. In the absence of his mother (she gave up her corporeal form in order to give birth to Steven…it’s a whole thing), he is raised by both his human father Greg and a trio of aliens called the Crystal Gems, who themselves fought alongside Rose to free the earth.
As Steven grows up, he learns more about his mother’s past, how to control the alien powers she bequeathed to him, and becomes tangled in the intergalactic conspiracies that led to his mother and the Gems defending the earth in the first place. Sometimes after an adventure, Steven and the Crystal Gems get pizza.
This simple-sounding premise highlights several of the show’s more important and grown-up themes, like the importance of family (found and otherwise), the limitations of being born into someone else’s legacy, and the effects of war on its soldiers and survivors. Its stories are character-driven, and Steven Universe uses its quick, 11-minute episodes to build its characters from seemingly one-dimensional stereotypes — the “cool” gem, the “anxious” gem, the “gross” gem, the excitable little boy — into fully realized people/aliens with motivations and secrets that guide every moment of their behavior.
And then there’s the music. Not every episode of Steven Universe features an original song, but many do and they’re almost universally good. The show uses music both to bring its characters together, like in Season 4’s “Here Comes A Thought,” and to isolate them in contemplative moments, as in Season 3’s “It’s Over Isn’t It,” and its genres span from smooth jazz to metal to Broadway.
The most impressive thing about Steven Universe, however, is also what makes it a remarkable watch for older audiences: its dedication to worldbuilding. While the show begins on a seemingly small scale with stories of Steven’s everyday life in Beach City, throwaway lines, songs, and minor plot points snowball into stunning, macro-level reveals about the world of the Gems that as much fun to sleuth out as they are to be surprised with.
Come to Steven Universe for the charming characters, great music, and wonderful messages about love and family. Stay for the edge-of-your-seat intergalactic war mysteries and beautifully queer ethos.