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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Steven Universe: “Beach Party”

Illustration for article titled Steven Universe: “Beach Party”
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Superhero stories are awesome—it’s fun to watch really powerful people fighting, using abilities that we can only wish we had. (I mean, transforming into a baseball bat? Awesome.) But those stories often only really give the heroes reasons to fight (even if they’re somewhat abstracted) if there are normal people around for them to protect. That means that for every Superman, there are millions of people who have to deal with a world in which certain people can shoot lasers out of their eyes or fly around, fighting things that also have superpowers, but want to use them to murder or enslave everyone. How do those people deal with the estimated several billion dollars in property damage that ensue from pretty regular massive battles? “Beach Party” gets its plot started by addressing that question, using the answer to continue broadening the world of Steven Universe.

We open with the Gems fighting a giant pufferfish, just another one of the monsters that seems to attack Beach City all the time. Over the course of the fight, the Gems destroy the sign outside of Fish Stew Pizza before Amethyst knocks the fish back out into the ocean, merely delaying its defeat until the end of the episode (as I suspect everyone knew the moment Pearl criticized Amethyst for taking half measures). Kofi Pizza understandably yells at Garnet for destroying the sign outside of his restaurant—where everyone else in Beach City seems to just sort of accept the Gems, Mr. Pizza compares the Gems to a circus act and asks Steven why he hangs out with them. Kofi is maybe a little bit of a jerk, but all get the perspective of real people dealing with a world filled with alien superheroes and regular fights like a vastly superior version of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

In order to fix the “rift,” Steven decides to host a party with just the Gems and Pizzas (complete with hot dogs!). Steven puts the Pizzas and the Gems into a pretty standard sitcom plot here—trying to force people who just don’t get along into harmony—which suggests the tone “Beach Party” is going for. Rather than anything even close to serious like Connie’s worry about Steven was last week or Steven’s sadness in “Steven The Sword Fighter,” the conflict between the Pizzas and the Gems is played entirely for laughs, especially in the Gems’ overly showy fashion change/introduction sequence, which functions as a very funny riff on the seriousness of theme song: Sometimes, the Gems can be a bit oblivious to how they come off, even while in beachwear. The humor works because the emotional stakes here are only high for Steven, who wants the Gems to be appreciated and unbanned from a restaurant they don’t even frequent or realize they’ve been barred from (and they don’t even need to eat).

In particular, this episode is an awesome showcase for the aloof Garnet, whose general coolness and apathy toward everyday life provides most of its laughs. Garnet, who lest we forget is also the one who technically destroys the sign when the pufferfish blows her back toward Beach City, is utterly oblivious to the concerns of the Pizza family as she describes the mystical nature of the temple. She also bristles at Nana Pizza’s assertion of seniority since she is technically thousands of years older, though she later takes back her attitude of superiority in what’s probably the best (though still slight) emotional moment in “Beach Party,” impressed by Nana’s willingness to confront the pufferfish. And she especially bonds with Kofi when they play on a volleyball team together, both willing (and eager) to be jovial dicks in their pursuit of victory. Kofi turns out to be more than just a stern grump when he threatens his daughter Jenny with grounding or the loss of her car if she challenges him in volleyball, telling us everything we need to know about the type of parent he is.

Along those lines, the volleyball game serves to give a strongly antagonistic look at the personalities of both our heroes and the Pizza family, in a way that’s even better than a real fight (since those fights aren’t conflicts with real people). Beyond Garnet and Kofi, Jenny and Amethyst make an effective pair, both reveling in their willingness to get dirty for the game and trash talk abilities, reveling in messing with Pearl and Kiki. That team in turn takes pride in their skills and fastidiousness. And Nana might be the episode’s best character, complimenting the Gems, throwing herself into the volleyball game, and bravely helping Steven craft the battle strategy against the pufferfish. It wouldn’t surprise me if Nana could just fight really well for no particular reason, but it’d also be awesome if she had a backstory as a more terrestrial superhero. In every case, “Beach Party” gets to use the Pizzas’ chemistry with the Gems as a way of fleshing them out.

Eventually, the pufferfish shows back up (because of course it will) and the Gems and Pizzas work together to defeat it, volleyball-style (because of course every fight on this show now will end by approximating net sports). The Gems are unbanned from Fish Stew, but the Gems don’t really care. No one really learns here—the episode ends on Pearl asking what they were banned from—but there is something resembling closeness between the Gems and Pizzas, forged in the heat of battle (and the heat of the beach). That’s the sort of connection Steven Universe needs to establish before it can begin drawing on its extended cast of characters, allowing the Pizzas to just pop up at any time and have relationships with each member of the main cast, enriching the world the show is creating. If for that reason alone, “Beach Party” is a Steven Universe (and Steven Universe) success.


Stray observations:

  • “What’s the point of saving things if they’re just going to ban you from their pizza shops?”
  • “Ha, mysterious.” Garnet is the best.
  • Nana: “Did you know that when sand is superheated, it turns into glass?” Steven: “I did not know that.” Get these two a van and a mystery.
  • I can envision a completely different, more hunger-inducing episode building to the line “Protect the pizzas.”
  • “Frybo” was a really good rerun pairing for this one. Even with a small number of episodes, Cartoon Network has gotten very good at figuring out which older episodes will fit with which new ones.