There is this cartoon show about a kid growing up in a small seaside resort town in the Delmarva area. He lives with his three weird aunts in a beach house overlooking the ocean. His mother has passed away, and his dad lives out of a van, but he owns a local car wash anyway and helps raise the kid. He spends his days interacting with his family and the weird characters of his town, learning life lessons and having adventures. Eventually, he finds out that his family members each had a weird history with his mother, who may not have been the person he thought she was.
There is this cartoon show about these strange immortal warrior women called the Crystal Gems: Pearl, Amethyst and Garnet, the last survivors of an ancient race on Earth. Their goddess-like leader is gone, but she left them her son, who is the only half Gem/half human there has ever been, as he comes into his own both as leader and a powerful being in his own right. Then the vast empire that spawned the Gems comes back to Earth, which was a failed colony of theirs, and Steven and the Crystal Gems have to figure out how to ward off their sinister plans towards our planet.
Both of these shows are Steven Universe.
A lot has been said about Steven Universe's progressive values, its depiction of LGBTQIA characters, its non-traditional gender roles, its subversion of magical girl tropes by using them on a male character, and how that main character prevails usually through communication and healing rather than fighting.
All of these things are true, and great. But what's talked about much less is that the show works in many other ways. The story is classic sci-fi. While it takes place on a modern-day Earth, it's not entirely the same as our Earth, before long you'll notice that this version of the world has been indelibly changed by its five-thousand-year backstory. It doesn't just pull its story out of nowhere but lays clever hints in early episodes that back up the huge revelations of later seasons. Creator Rebecca Sugar has referred to the show as "this puzzle we've constructed," and it's really only after you've seen the whole series (five seasons, a movie and a short follow-up series, as well as a few canonical comics and even some video games) that you can see how everything fits together.
Halfway through Season Five, the show drops one hell of a bombshell of a plot revelation, one of the greatest of any TV show, a revelation that completely re-contextualizes the entire series, but it was planned from the very start, and to attentive viewers, it makes perfect sense. (If you've not seen the show, it's very easy to be spoiled about it. Depending on how you feel about spoilers, you might not want to seek out information on the show until you've had a chance to see it yourself.) Even the early episodes, that some viewers deride as "filler," turn out to contain important hints that set up later episodes. (By the way, filler is a term I dislike in general when applied to television shows, but especially Steven Universe. The "filler" episodes are some of the most effective, and they all reveal essential information about the characters and their world--except maybe for Say Uncle. You'll know why when you see it.)
When I first started watching Steven Universe, back around 2013, a weird feeling came over me. I thought I was just largely over television in general, but Steven Universe hooked me in. It was a show aimed at kids but that had real and important things to say, that had great secrets in store, that could communicate things by what characters didn't say as much as by what they did.
I've written long episode synopses for people in the past who usually get bored before they get out of Season 1. There are a few good watchthroughs on Tumblr (one I'm currently reading is Steven Universally, which has a lot of spoilers), and a couple of podcasts that cover the show, Lunar Sea Spire and Two Not So Giant Women. But to lay out the structure of the series, which does contain some spoilers, but I've tried to avoid certain major revelations:
Mostly slice-of-life, with a fair number of weekly monster fights. The first season is double-length, 52 stories (which air two to a show, so, 26 episodes, divided into two sequences of about 13 episodes each). These episodes introduce most of the other characters in Steven's hometown of Beach City, especially Steven's father Greg Universe, two human friends Sadie and Lars, and his new best friend Connie Maheswaran. At the end of the first half, a big revelation is made about the show's characters and setting, with the introduction of a previously-unseen Gem called Lapis Lazuli, who possesses incredible power. We also find out the unsettling true nature of the monsters that the Crystal Gems have been fighting.
While still mostly slice-of-life, continuity starts to really kick in here, with a number of excellent stories. Partway through we meet another new gem, Peridot. At the end, Lapis, Peridot and a formidable new gem called Jasper arrive and threaten everything Steven and the Gems hold dear. We also meet two more friendly new gems, Ruby and Sapphire, and learn something surprising about Garnet.
Steven and the other Gems managed to escape Jasper's clutches, but now the unfriendly gems are stuck and stranded on Earth. Further, Lapis and Jasper are joined together into an unstable fusion called Malachite. Also, a serious rift forms for awhile between Garnet and Pearl. And worst of all, the Gems come to realize that there is an ancient geoweapon that's been buried within the Earth's crust for five thousand years, called the Cluster, that is soon due to hatch, and when it does it will destroy the world. The Crystal Gems form an alliance with Peridot to try to stop it. Along the way, Peridot gets in communication with one of the Gem Empire's great matriarchs, Yellow Diamond, who's awesomely voiced by Patti LuPone! In the process Peridot becomes Steven's true ally and friend, as well as a wonderful character in her own right. (Peridot seems heavily inspired by Invader Zim, and could easily lead a show all by herself.)
This season starts out with big events, as both Malachite and the Cluster are resolved in the first episodes. At the end Lapis has been rescued from her fusion with Jasper, and while she and Steven are friends, she's not as close to the other Gems, or Peridot, with whom she has significant differences. Over time though Lapis and Peridot become friends, and even artists and farmers of a sort. (Lapis calls her art "meep morps.") Also, midway through this season we meet Bismuth, an old friend of the Gems and Steven's mother Rose Quartz from the great Gem War five thousand years ago, who has for some reason been in stasis, in a "bubble," for all this time, apparently put there by Rose herself. At the end Jasper reveals that she's been trying to build an army out of the monsters that the Gems have been fighting, but she eventually suffers a terrible fate. We find out the name of the third of the four Gem Matriarchs, Pink Diamond, the leader of the Earth colony, but who was destroyed by Rose Quartz.
This season marks something of a return to the episodic stories of the first season. It's derided as filler by some fans, but it has some important character arcs in it, including the abduction and rescue of Steven's father Greg. We meet another gem matriarch for the first time, Blue Diamond, and also visit a space station belonging to the Gem Empire. A mysterious pair of gems named Aquamarine and Topaz comes and threatens the people Steven cares about most, especially one of his human friends, Lars.
The series rapidly progresses towards its conclusion in Season 5, with nearly every episode introducing something of gigantic importance. Steven and Lars begin trapped on the Gem Homeworld. The normally surly teenager Lars reveals a side of himself that no one suspected, and becomes one of the most awesome characters on the show! Steven finds an unexpected way back to Earth, but Lars can't follow--he meets some new friends on Homeworld though, and they resolve to find their own way back. Steven and his best friend Connie, however, have some problems it takes a few episodes to resolve. Sadie starts a rock band with some of the other teens of Beach City, and Greg becomes their manager! At last, in the episode A Single Pale Rose, we finally find out what the heck was Rose Quartz's deal all this time, and what it was that caused her ultimately to rebel against the Gem Homeworld. From there the show is in freefall towards its conclusion, and its confrontation with the remaining Diamonds: Yellow, Blue, and at last White Diamond.
Two years have passed. After the events of the main series, life has returned to normal, somewhat, on Earth. The Gems on Earth have formed a small town of their own, called Little Homeworld. But a new threat comes from the stars, a Gem called Spinel, who has a grudge against Steven's mother.
STEVEN UNIVERSE FUTURE:
Takes place right after the movie. Steven and the other Crystal Gems have formed a school for Gems (and humans too it seems) to teach them self-determination and how to live on Earth. But Steven's legacy looms again, he gains some unexpected new powers, and at the end his childhood of repeated adventure cartoon trauma comes home to roost.
Steven Universe is a young and optimistic kid who grows up over the course of the show. As the only human/Gem hybrid, no one really knows what Steven will become, but he's determined to be the best whatever-it-is he can be.
Greg Universe is Steven's father. He became the lover of the Gem rebel leader Rose Quartz. The two adored each other. There are gaps in what we learn about their relationship, but the episodes that flashback to their time together are among the most best and most heartwarming in the series.
Rose Quartz is gone from the world during the show, but we do see her in flashbacks sometime. Her many mysteries form the core of the show's conflict.
Garnet is the leader of the Crystal Gems. There is a fairly large spoiler about her that I'm avoiding, but it's revealed right at the end of the first season. She's tough and stoic, has strange future-seeing powers, and never asks questions. Watching her demeanor towards Steven soften over the series is wonderful to observe.
Amethyst is the youngest of the Gems, but she's still thousands of years old. She's like Steven's big sister. She didn't experience the terror of the Gem War, meeting with the others some time after that. She's the Gem, other than Rose Quartz, with the most experience interacting with humans.
Pearl is the most mysterious living Crystal Gem. The backstories of Garnet and Amethyst are revealed in the first two seasons, but we don't find out about Pearl until much later, largely because her past is intertwined with that of Rose Quartz.
Sadie and Lars are teenage humans who run Steven's favorite eatery, Big Donut. As humans, they don't generally get involved with super-powered Gem adventures, but sometimes Gem events intrude upon their lives. Sadie is fond of Steven, but Lars thinks he's annoying (which he is a bit, at least in Season One). Both turn out to have some deep issues.
The Cool Kids are the other teenagers of Beach City: Sour Cream, Buck Dewey, and the twins Jenny Pizza and Kiki Pizza. The show is pretty clever about them. At first they seem shallow and self-absorbed, but it turns out the Cool Kids are actually really cool. They're accepting about the huge weirdness around Steven and generally try to be his friend.
Connie Maheswaran is Steven's best friend and crush. She starts out as a shy, bookish, and rather over-mothered young girl who's development takes a turn for the awesome due to her adventures with Steven. Late series Connie is nearly an entirely different person than early series Connie. Connie's mother Dr. Priyanka Maheswaran is a doctor, and quite formidable, which somewhat pushes her daughter away. Connie's father Greg Maheswaran is a security guard and slightly more laid back than his wife.
Lion is a weird pink lion with strange powers who just shows up, and has some unknown affinity with Steven.
Peridot is the first Homeworld Gem to befriend the Crystal Gems. She's a techie and becomes an incessant fangirl over Earth media, especially the show Camp Pining Hearts. She's great.
Lapis Lazuli was trapped on Earth for millennia and kind of understandably doesn't have a great opinion of Earth at the start of the series, but it kind of grows on her. She eventually befriends Peridot and they live in Steven's family's barn for a while.
Jasper tries to form an army out of monsters on Earth, but suffers an awful fate. She does come back much later, but not really until Steven Universe Future.
We don't see much of the gems Ruby or Sapphire generally, but they're still there. You'll have to watch the show to find out where they are this whole time.
The Ruby Team is a groups of other Rubies from Homeworld, who have been sent on a mission to Earth to find Jasper. They can be told apart by where their gems are on their bodies. Steven gives them nicknames based on their location: Army, Leggy, Navy, Eyeball and... Doc. Eyeball especially doesn't like Steven. Navy doesn't seem too bad, but appearances can be deceiving.
Aquamarine is another agent of Homeworld sent to find out what the heck is up with the Earth. Topaz is her underling.
Holly Blue Agate is the overseer of the Gem space station. She is boss of a group of Amethysts collectively called the Famithyst.
Some minor humans are Mr. Fryman and his sons, the comically serious kid Peedee Fryman and conspiracy theorist teen Ronaldo Fryman, the elder Pizzas Kofi Pizza and Nanafua Pizza, the mayor Bill Dewey (voiced by Joel Hodgson!), Sadie's mother Barbara Miller, Lars' parents the Baringas, Steven's mailman Jamie, Sour Cream's parents Vidalia (a close friend of Amethyst) and Yellowtail and brother Onion (@#$@%@%), and the manager (and possible sole employee) of Beach City's boardwalk Mr. Smiley. There's also Greg's old manager, Marty.
The Diamonds are Yellow, Blue, Pink and White. To reveal more about them would be a big spoiler. A few other new characters show up in Future.
A word should be said about Onion. It's weird that in a show full of magical super-powered space woman with bizarre powers, possibly the strangest character of all is this "ordinary" human kid. Some fans don't like him, but I think everything Onion does in the show is great. Steven gets so creeped out by him in some episodes, especially Onion Trade and Onion Friend. Watch out for Onion, you'll see what I mean.