17th Apr2015

‘Steven Universe S02E06: Shirt Club’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Vote For My Dad.”

The stakes have never been lower, but Steven Universe thrives on the small stage.  The episode’s plot is simple: Steven and Buck Dewey make T-shirts together, then disagree about what said T-shirts are for.  It’s a light, sit-com-esque premise that leads into an earnest look at what growing up can take from us.  Nothing explodes, nobody fuses with anybody, and the B-plot is a running discussion about ownership of art and the incompatibility of art and capitalism.  Imagine an episode of Dragon Ball Z where Goku just repairs a shoe while arguing with Bulma about the value of the 24-hour news cycle.

The episode begins with Steven proudly showing the Gems his handmade poster advertising guitar lessons from Greg.  The Gems react with varying levels of tolerant interest, but down at the Big Donut the ever-hip Buck Dewey sees memetic potential right off the bat.  Buck convinces Steven to abandon posters and join him to print T-shirts on his father the mayor’s old campaign equipment.  In the process the two boys stumble over Buck’s childhood “Vote for My Dad” drawings, something Mayor Dewey remembers fondly but to which his son reacts with frustrated embarrassment. Mayor Dewey’s evolution from heartless robot to fumbling, uncool dad as he awkwardly pats Buck on the back and shouts Carter-era buzzwords like “Peace in the Middle East!” makes for a surprisingly affecting arc.

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Mayor Dewey’s squareness is in conflict with his son’s age-bracket-appropriate irony, but Steven’s unabashed love for Greg represents a chance for Buck to revisit the purity of what he at Steven’s age felt for his own father.  So, like all good teenagers, Buck realizes this and sets about cynically attempting to sabotage it.  “You really love your dad,” he observes to Steven after insulting the younger child’s heartfelt but unskilled artwork.  “It’s funny.”  Buck takes Steven’s drawing and uses it to make Greg, or “Guitar Dad,” an object of ridicule.  It takes Steven a while to cotton on to what’s happening, and he and Buck spend a while firing T-shirts at passers-by from a rooftop hideout (bringing back in the process the “Buy T-shirt Cannons” T-shirt cannon, easily my favorite Steven Universe gag) before Buck admits what he’s doing.

The older kid tries to play off his cruel prank like performance art, arguing that it exists on its own merits and shouldn’t be questioned and the conflict between Buck’s adolescent cynicism and Steven’s youthful idealism plays out with corrosive realism.  We’ve all been the little kid trying to act cool around our older siblings and their friends, and conversely we’ve all wished our kid siblings and their obnoxious friends would stop being so damn chipper and blissfully ignorant all the time.  Buck, whether he realizes it or not, resents the apparent lack of complexity in Steven’s connection to Greg, but what he’s really taking aim at with his faux-avant guard jerkishness is the loss of his own innocent love for his dad.

Steven has been kind of a beloved sidekick to the Cool Kids on several of their adventures, and bringing conflict into that dynamic is a smart move that deepens and textures Steven’s and Buck’s relationship.  It’s helped by writer/storyboarder Lamar Abrams’ cool, nuanced voice work for Buck and his easy chemistry with Zach Callison’s Steven; the two sound like siblings and it adds weight to their falling out and to their reconciliation. It’s worth noting that the empty warehouse outside of town, a location Steven Universe uses often and to great effect, frames most of Buck’s interactions with Steven and is the site of some really stellar, understated artwork by Abrams and Hellen Jo.

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The Gems are kind of out of focus again, but their two appearances are memorable for the sheer density of jokes crammed into each (they’re assembling IKEA furniture!) and for the fact that they never leave the couch in the beach house’s living room.  I like the idea that they sit in place and stare fixedly at nothing until Garnet senses trouble.  “Steven,” Pearl admonishes when Steven comes to the Gems for help, “this sounds like a very abstract problem.”  It is, and it’s hard to imagine another show that, rather than punishing Buck for his misdeeds or rubbing the harshness of reality and growing up in Steven’s face, would commit to exploring the value of the unaffected connection between a parent and a child.

Steven Universe posits that this form of connection holds value even later in life when cultural forces conspire to drive wedges between fathers and their sons.  There’s a refreshing lack of preachiness in the show’s defense of love, and when Buck sees his love for his father recreated in his childhood drawing he ultimately chooses to set cynicism aside.  I think the choice to frame the scene like something out of Leon: The Professional is a little weird, but the end result is heartfelt and the closing shot of Buck rocking a Guitar Dad shirt without a trace of irony feels earned.

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That said, we now live in a universe where Steven Universe dropped an overt and extended reference to infamous sniper Charles Whitman and the clock tower shootings.

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