Sometimes the world feels pretty gross. Bad things happen to good people and sometimes people say some terrible things in response to the bad things that happen. It can be pretty exhausting.
I am acutely aware of the tragic nature of life, it is easy to get caught up in it. I need reminding that there are better things in the world aside from negativity and cynicism. Fiction seems to be where the optimism gathers. If writers don’t like the world they experience they have the opportunity to craft one better. These are not rose colored glasses covering the truth, but they tend to be worlds that represent the best of us, what we can become in our shining moments.
When Rod Serling became frustrated working in traditional media he created the Twilight Zone, widely regarded as being some of the most challenging television material of the period. Concepts considered too intellectual or too controversial within the bounds of typical narrative became easier to digest within a world of distorted pig faced aliens or gremlins on the wings of planes torturing a lone man.
Humans (myself included) tend to not react well when confronted with change or concepts that are foreign. This is the benefit of animation as a medium. The simplified, illustrated humanoid form is abstract enough to experience the emotional content without awareness of confrontation. Note that I am speaking from personal experience rather than gathered data, I’ll let experts talk to the reality and numbers.
After what feels like decades of dark, gritty animation or shows that consisted of pure absurdity it feels like we have a block of shows now that speak to the concepts I mention above, optimism, hope and the struggle to maintain your innocence despite external circumstances.
There are multiple shows that fit this criteria, Adventure Time, Bee and Puppycat, anything that Lauren Faust has created in the past few years and anime like Girls und Panzer, lately I’ve been focused on Steven Universe.
From the promos Steven Universe looks like every other Cartoon Network program. I would not be shocked if people just passed it by like I did thinking it was standard animation fodder. I finally decided to watch it because of the continued noise from social media regarding the show.
It was the second episode that made me a fan, I felt like I understood exactly what show creator Rebecca Sugar was trying to accomplish.
Steven Universe has a simple fantasy structure. A boy of limited ability living with three super powered caretakers going on a hero’s journey to achieve his destiny. That setup could be any number of fantasy novels or movies in the past few decades, but Rebecca Sugar has turned this on its head by having our protagonist Steven ask questions and perform actions that any human can relate to.
Where Adventure Time was a television show that celebrated play and childhood, Steven Universe is about the actual experience of growing up, of doubt and discovering that adults are just really taller children with a bit more time under their belt. Every character here is deeply flawed without being discouraging and overwhelming. The battle is uphill but you know in your bones that they will succeed. The skill in the writing is that you don’t really know how the character will get there, but you know that they will. The characters come in every shape, size and temperament and there is bound to be one that your child and you as an adult can connect with.
Despite the outrageous framework Steven is a very real child, arguably one of the most realistic children on television and this has been compelling to children and adults alike. Steven Universe is a my prime example for how television has changed and overcome the eighties and nineties toy driven properties that had little impact outside of amusement.
In a tweet the other day, I had said that Steven Universe was more grounded than most prime time television and I meant this wholeheartedly. Just like Rod Serling did decades ago with difficult moral choices and warnings against losing your humanity Steven Universe does with hope, optimism and making childhood a little less frightening.
In this case I’m giving the same advice that I normally give to parents about video games. Invest in challenging media for your children and engage with them. Watch cartoons, perform a role, get nerdy about speculating about plot points and connections, write your own stories about the characters. In essence play just like your children are playing.
I think parents often complain about the declining attention spans and television being vapid, but the kids who sat in front of a blue glow with a bowl of sugary cereal on Saturday mornings have grown up to create some important stories. At first glance you may not be able to recognize them as such, but I promise, you will be rewarded.