Steven Universe has slowly developed a devout following of fans across the world. Hailed for its ground breaking portrayal of queer relationships, story telling, and character development, anytime a new episode drops an army of fans are ready analyze it with fine tooth comb.
It wasn’t always like that. With the release of Steven Universe: The Complete First Season on DVD we went back to the beginning. Back before the Gem home world. Back before Peridot and Lapis. Back before Stevonnie. Back before all the theories, analysis, tie-in books, and interviews.
Back to when it was just Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, and Steven.
With how much the show has evolved some fans look back to the beginning and think of it as “the stuff to get through.” The part you tell your friends to just kinda deal with until you reach “the good episodes.”
That does the early part of the series a huge disservice, particularly “Gem Glow.” On the surface the plot is simple. Steven wants to summon his Gem weapon but no matter how hard he tries it doesn’t work, until seemingly eating his favorite ice cream sandwich does the trick.
In the hands of a lesser creative team this would be a forgettable outing but the closer you look the more you realize this is a spectacular introduction to the characters and format of the series.
All of the characters are introduced perfectly. Steven especially, with his loyal love of Cookie Cats. He alternatively freaks out at their discontinuation to basically being an old man when he learns other kids much prefer Lion Lickers.
“Kids these days, I tell you what.”
Not only is that line perfectly delivered by Zach Callison but it’s the perfect introduction to the series reliance on millennial rooted humor. While cartoons from the ’90s and 2000s would regularly reference ’70s and ’80s pop culture respectively, Steven Universe was one of the first in a wave of shows to have jokes clearly made by kids who grew up in the ’90s. This would of course become more pronounced throughout the series but it all starts here.
The Cookie Cat Rap is hands down the best moment of “Gem Glow.” Fans will argue about what the best song of the series is but I’m here to tell you it’s the Cookie Cat Rap. Save your angry comments and linking Stronger Than You. It’s the Cookie Cat Rap. It was this moment that hooked me into the show. Steven’s so energized singing that jingle! It’s his love of such a simple thing that makes him so endearing. If Steven can love such a simple sweet treat, we as an audience can love and be passionate about this series after only seeing eleven minutes of it.
It’s also telling that Steven’s love of Cookie Cats seemingly activates his shield for the first time. After all, isn’t love the answer to everything in this show?
Introducing Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl with a battle is an effective way of demonstrating the series’ action elements but I actually prefer their explanations of how to summon weapons as the perfect intro to their characters. (Although I will say, I didn’t notice Pearl snapping the neck of that Centipeetle until this watch. Pearl is a stone cold killer.)
Those brief little scenes tell you everything you need to know about them. Pearl is calm and orderly, seeing the whole universe as an interconnected force with a set plan. Amethyst just goes with the flow and doesn’t think too much about the world around her. Garnet is a mysterious force that seemingly has knowledge beyond all understanding. She also has killer dance moves.
In this brief span of about two minutes we also establish another core element of the show, that it’s all from Steven’s perspective. While we learn a lot about the Gems through their actions, it’s till very much from Steven’s POV. We feel his confusion at Pearl’s lesson; we see his frustration with Amethyst’s advice, and we are right there with him in his confusion after Garnet’s intense explanation.
Explanations are not dolled out easily in this opening episode. Are the Centipeetle’s Crystal Gems like the others? Why are they fighting them? Why is Steven hanging out with these three women? Why does Steven have a “magic belly button”?
Other series would spend tons of time on exposition for these things but “Gem Glow” knows its priority isn’t in laying out the whole universe of what the show will be. It’s just getting you to enjoy the show as it is right now. It’s more about the enjoyment of this one episode (as Steven enjoys Cookie Cats) than looking to the future.
That isn’t to say it isn’t gearing up the audience for later reveals. The clues, especially on rewatch, are all right there. Pearl is the one who first remarks Steven has a shield, which foreshadows her love of Rose. The Cookie Cat rap basically sums up the back-story of the series.
But all those the complicated arcs? The world building? The cast of characters? Those will all come later. This opening episode is just about setting up how the show will work and more importantly getting you to love these four characters. In that is succeeds perfectly.