Saturday, January 16, 2016

Steven Universe Segments 5 & 6: Reckless Power And Father Stuff

If it was pretentious for me to have a Review #0 for Cowboy Bebop, I'll make up for it by starting several episodes into Steven Universe. This means I'm not going to do a post explaining who the characters are, or the setting or ... you know all that "review" stuff. I'm going to pretend it's all been done and start with episode 3. Maybe I'll make a background review eventually, but no promises.

I'm also going to apologize in advance, I am barely capable of typing "Steven". My fingers always want to describe the nonexistent show Stephen Universe, which would likely be a BBC docudrama about the beginnings of data driven astronomy. In the many times I will type the simple and common English name Steven wrong, you can sit in silent judgement of me and PJE Peebles.

You can take the standard cosmological models and shove 'em!

The segments I saw today are "Frybo" and "Cat Fingers". (Incidentally, I in no way promise a two segment review every day) These episodes combine in an interesting way. It's dangerous to speculate on artistic motives - on the one hand it takes an incredible amount of thought and energy to make even the dumbest cartoon, on the other human beings are boundless in their ability to hallucinate patterns. Plus, I have no idea if anyone controls the order the episodes come out in - it might be one of those cosmic structures I keep reading about. But given that today's episodes have the common themes of recklessly used and misunderstood power and paternal misunderstanding, I assume that they were meant to be seen together. The humor is getting sharper, but the episodes groan under the weight of their multiple goals. These episodes have to introduce complex characters, forward a metaplot, have a coherent internal plot, have a straightforward emotional thrust and be funny. These episodes feel like the zing at a billion miles an hour to try and hit all those gongs.


The first segment is "Frybo". Reckless power: a gem that brings clothing to life / Paternal misunderstanding: What little boy wouldn't want to wear such an adorable costume?. We met the Fryman family back in one of those segments I didn't review, but this one introduces Peedee (P.D.?), who is Steven's age and therefore more interesting. Peedee has an amusingly serious world view, and rambles in an adorable way about the oppression and necessity of being a wage slave. Steven purposefully ignores this, just as he accidentally ignores Pearl earlier and uses a dangerous magical crystal (meant to be an instant soldier by animating armor) to help Peedee get out of his job. At the end we discover that Frybo means a lot to Peedee's father (which nobody understands), which explains the parental misunderstanding. In Mr Fryman's mind, being put inside Frybo is an honor. I like to imagine that Peedee gets his dark world view from his mother, who hasn't been introduced.

As you can see above, Frybo looks kind of like a fusion of Frylock and Master Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Coincidence? Or is it ... Memorex? Also, the Fryman family has blond, fry-like hair. Ha! Peedee's brother also runs a blog called "Keep Bay City Weird", a parody of the pro-local business slogan "Keep Austin Weird". I know somehow that he's a conspiracy nut, another reference to Austin culture. Being so Austin-oriented doesn't make sense in the context of the show, but if he starts playing blues guitar, I'm gonna laugh like a drug-crazed Austinite!

Cat Fingers

The second and final segment was "Cat Fingers". Reckless power: Shapeshifting / Paternal misunderstanding: Surely someone is helping my son with these bodily changes. Crystal Gems have the power to shapeshift. In these early episodes we're going to be spoonfed their powers in an organic way, because the show is 11 minutes long and there's no time to have an "introducing out powers" episode. The series is probably better off for it. This episode introdu-SWEET SNACK CAKES, IT'S JOEL HODGSON!!!!

Joel Hodgson

"I'm not paying you guys for father-son bonding!", haha, classic Mystery SsssssssssTeven Universe. Yes, this episode features the comedian, magician, actor, special effects advisor, writer, creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000, The TV Wheel and many others, yes, TV's own Joel Hodgson in an award winning, scene stealing - okay he's in the episode for like a second.

Hey, did you know some TV shows have plots now? For instance, this segment has one of them! Earlier I mentioned that the writing of Steven Universe, while very, very good, are sometimes pulled apart by having so many goals to reach. I gave as examples: Metaplot (meeting Mayor Bill Dewey, played by JOEL HODGSON, MAN AMONG MEN - oh and introducing the fact that Crystal Gems can shapeshift), have a coherent internal plot (Steven begins using his shapeshifting powers, but without guidance finds that he lacks control), have a straightforward emotional thrust (Steven's father coming through for him despite being way outside his comfort zone) and comedy (this episode is just ... kitten around!). This episode screams forward at a crazy fast pace to hit all those notes, and it has to be admitted - they play a beautiful chord. The Brundle-Fly-esque transformations Steven takes on are great. I like the idea that kids will watch this in 20 years and realize it was actually kind of disturbing. But it isn't cheap disturbing like we see so often nowadays, what with all those kids on my lawn. It's perfectly PG Cronenberg.

It's also good that Peedee is dour in his new job, even though he does respect it more. It's tough to have character evolution without turning it into hackneyed box checking. On a lesser show, getting out of the Frybo costume would have cured all Peedee's ills. On this one, he still finds ways to be put upon, because that's who he is.

Background from "Frybo"
I feel the art direction is not as good as the previous segment. The sunset that ended "Frybo" was beautiful. It brought pathos to one character and bathos to the others, which was great. The comically small Crystal Gem Sloop was amusing, but I think maybe going for impressive would have been better? I look forward to seeing them use that sloop constantly, until a crazed monster breaks up the people's trunk and eats all of Steven's corn. Okay, okay, I know they probably won't use the sloop much more, but I'll wait for it. Don't worry, comically undersized sloop, you'll get your day in the sun, just hang in there. Yeah, hang on sloopy!

Wait right there, I want to do this forever.

Steven Universe

Today's episode was very good. I'm not going to give numerical ratings, because a work of art's qualities are a complicated vector and using scalars privileges one choice of utility function over others in a way I'm nor comfortable with. Plus, I haven't seen enough of the series to know how to adjust if it turns out they start getting 100 times better (or worse) at episode ten or something. I will say this: of the segments of Steven Universe I've reviewed so far, these are the top two.

By the way, no I have nothing against P J E Peebles, who is a great physicist.

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