Steven Universe Recap: “Shirt Club”
In which this whole “airing episodes out of order” thing finally feels noticeable.
The Recap: Steven designs a poster for Greg’s guitar lessons and Buck Dewey convinces him to put the design on a(n instantly popular) t-shirt. Steven’s feelings about the situation become complicated when he realizes people are enjoying his picture ironically rather than appreciating its original intent.
Alright, turns out we had one more episode pushed back by the Steven Bomb (I think, according to Matt Burnett’s post – Google lists the next two episodes as being waylaid season 1 episodes as well, but let’s take that with a grain of salt). And while “Open Book” and “Story for Steven” straddled a line of “would’ve flowed really well here but work well as stand-alones,” today’s episode is pretty substantively hurt by where it ended up.
The Buck we see in this episode barely squares with the kid who was a stoic, supportive friend to Steven in “Joy Ride” – indeed, if this really did take place after that episode Buck would be a horrible person, well aware that Steven feels a lot of anxiety over his family situation but still nonchalantly exploiting that father/son relationship. Still, this is the age of the internet, and the sort of person who’d be inclined to read this recap (or be this bothered by the arc of a tertiary character) has probably already reconciled how things were supposed to go in their minds, so all this is effectively quibbling. Let’s just assume this is how Buck learns to be the sort of guy who invites Steven out and makes “Pizza Rain” jokes, and carry on.
What we have here is another Story About Art: if “Story for Steven” had an undercurrent about “failing” at art versus choosing something else that you decide is more important, here the idea is “how do we enjoy art” with a side of the ugly business of marketing. One of the most common words used to describe Steven Universe as a show is “earnest,” so it makes sense to have an episode that stands up and asks “why can’t we just like things without having to distance ourselves from that feeling through layers of irony?” That’s a fair enough question. But, as is generally the case for this show, it’s the little things that elevate the subject matter.
First off, the script takes the small but crucial step to separate “what’s wrong with earnestly enjoying something” from “if you criticize art that someone worked hard on, you are a meany poopface” by way of those first few minutes: even if it’s a gag, the fact that Steven listens and seems open to the Gems’ criticisms about his artwork is nice to see (when it would’ve been quite easy to go straight to “Steven is an unappreciated genius/they’re out of touch style exchange). And Steven seems happy to field questions and confusion about his poster, as long as it helps him get his message across (and help his dad out).
The double edge is when he hands his work over to someone else. On the one hand, it gets to everyone in Beach City. On the other, he no longer has any say over it. And wowza, is Buck rocking a Justin Beiber-esque “technically not illegal but proceeding to leave a bad taste in our collective mouths” scuzziness for most of the episode. The dichotomy between Mayor Dewey and Buck is likewise interesting: both are trying to create an image to form an audience, but while Dewey is sincere in his goals if inept in reaching the audience he wants, Buck knows enough to create a response at the expense of any message. Analogue clickbait, if you will.
Moreover, there’s the handling of the shirt-wearers (our consumers), the ones who’ve taken all this as a joke. It’s clear that they’re all completely disconnected from the source of the art, not even thinking that it has another purpose (speaking of sincerity, that small moment of Jenny driving by and complimenting Greg while still totally missing the point of the poster is both sweet and a touch sad). And Steven’s not angry with them. Once you put your art out in the world, after all, you can’t control how people respond to it. If you try, you’re bound to end up on an Amazon review board arguing about “interrogating the text,” and nobody wants that.
So we can read the distinction as “while art will mean different things to different people throughout time, and will undoubtedly change its meaning, you cross a line when you deliberately remove it from its original/intended context” – the difference between fans of a show making teasing memes of a show they love, and marketing companies making facsimiles of those sorts of jokes with 25% of the creativity and none of the love (…and you know, the more I think about it, this reads pretty well as a kid-friendly, updated version of Daria’s “Arts ‘N’ Crass”). Steven is able to bring Buck to his senses (who, lest we forget, is a pretty good kid underneath it all) by giving him a dose of his own proverbial medicine, something that is tragically impossible to perform on all the schmucks providing ironic licensed merch to Spencer’s Gifts nationwide.
In miscellaneous observations:
- It is actively painful watching Lars this episode on a number of levels: the in-episode context that he’s falling all over himself to please a guy who’s being kind of a jerk, the post-“Joy Ride” awkwardness in knowing that the “Cool Kids” themselves are likewise performing facades to get through their daily stress and that Lars would probably have more luck if he could just let himself be straightforward, the general awareness that he’s a decent human being hiding way, way down there.
- Ronaldo wears a trilby. Of course he does.
- It would seem Greg’s success in “The Message” (I think? That would make sense?) has really helped boost his self-confidence and renewed a love in his art. It’d be nice to see that go on developing in the background.
- Garnet is paradoxically the best mom when times are tough and the worst when asked point-blank for help (see also: “the children are playing with swords”).
- On the flip side of characters having nice arcs, this really does wonders for Mayor Dewey post-“Political Power.” Steven’s assertion that Dewey is a kind of well-meaning dad for Beach City now has something to take root in – his genuine (there’s that emotion again), touched joy at seeing Buck’s drawing on those t-shirts really warmed me toward the character (plus the whole foiling of the two parent/child relationships is right up my alley).
Next week’s episode is “Love Letters.” I know basically nothing about it beyond that it will seemingly involve the mail carrier we’ve not seen since….maybe since “Cheeseburger Backpack,” and that it will definitely have Connie in it. The latter is kind of enough for me. Hope to see you there!
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Vrai is a queer author and pop culture blogger; they totally remember to take breaks from typing and cartoons – mostly when their eyeballs begin shriveling and crying in their sockets. You can read more essays and find out about their fiction at Fashionable Tinfoil Accessories, or remind them of the existence of Tweets.
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