“Shirt Club” is about two of my favorite things: dads and art.
Being a dad sounds awesome. (I mean this mostly in the spiritual sense, rather than actually having physical children, though that is probably pretty cool too, for most people.) You’re essentially honing all of the best parts of yourself, assuming you’re trying to do a good job of parenting, because otherwise you’re not setting a positive example or giving your kids the best possible childhood. You can be a tyrant if you want, and there’s nothing your kids can do about it, even over silly things. But best of all, you get to be a huge, earnest dork and no one can make fun of you because being a spiritual dad is like being the Blob—in that the worse your jokes are, the funnier they are, precisely because of their inherent dad-ness and terribleness.
That’s why the funniest parts of this episode come from incredible dad Mayor Dewey’s attempts to be cool to the kids, allowing him to say things like, “You know, I gotta gank dat youth vote boii” in an attempt to identify not only with his son, Buck, but also with the rest of the young people who could plausibly vote for him. Mayor Dewey (who I’ve neglected to mention until now is voiced by Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Joel Hodgson) has been a bit of a thinly sketched political cartoon before this, even in his big spotlight episode “Political Power” (which, it should be noted, takes place after this one), but this episode reveals that he’s really something much simpler—a doofy middle-aged white dude who is trying really hard to stay jovially relevant, even as his son refuses to join the “family business.” (In particular, I kind of love “Peace in the Middle East, homes,” a sentence I am seriously considering working into my day-to-day conversation.)
Both Mayor Dewey and Greg are hyper-earnest about the things they care about (guitar lessons for Greg and benches for Mayor Dewey), opening them up to having their feelings hurt by the caustic humor of the kids. Their dad humor is impeccable, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings. Thankfully, Greg and Mayor Dewey never know they’re being made fun of, but the fact that they could helps create the human scale of this episode (it involves literally no supernatural activity whatsoever). The Gems get to make fun of that relative smallness, when they ask Steven whether the shirts he’s made with Buck are magic and attacking the town. Steven’s great reply—“They’re just using my art in a way I don’t agree with”—leads in to the second of the episode’s two subjects.
“They,” in this case, refers to some extent to the other cool kids, but primarily Buck, the second-most important character in “Shirt Club” behind Steven himself. This is the first spotlight for one of the cool kids separate from the rest of the group, and one of the first characters of Beach City to get any new, unique depth beyond the five or six who have been a part of the show’s world for a while (Ronaldo, Lars and Sadie, Connie, etc.). In a sense, Buck’s character is a little messy here—it’s unclear whether he’s really interested in making “art” the way he claims to Steven, or whether he just wants to generate coolness buzz for himself, exemplified by his use of hype-centric (especially the word “swag”), things which conflict over the course of the episode.
Though initially, Steven thinks Buck is helping him making shirts to publicize Greg’s guitar lessons, Guitar Dad basically becomes a meme, something for the other kids to mock ironically and take photos of Greg without actually getting guitar help. Steven doesn’t realize that his PR strategy is backfiring until he confronts Buck, who replies: “That’s what’s so great about it. Your work is so naive.” This is a bit overly dramatic, but it helps pin down a bit the idea that Buck is a tastemaker, and wants to keep making tastes in the town through his weird shirts. His desire for publicity is reminiscent of his father’s minor celebrity, and though we still don’t know the full extent of the difficulties in their relationship, it’s certainly been expanded on, both in “Joy Ride” and at the end of this episode.
The climax of “Shirt Club,” in which Steven fires additional shirts at Mayor Dewey’s bench commemoration, is surprisingly tense for an episode of the show that features exactly zero life-threatening events. Steven’s sniping manages to be cool, funny, and somewhat threatening, all at the same time (evoking several movies), a true achievement by storyboard artists Lamar Abrams (who also voices Buck) and Hellen Jo. At first, I thought that Steven was firing his own shirt at Mayor Dewey so that he would make it cool, thereby getting Buck to abandon the project. But that’s too much of a sitcom resolution for Steven Universe, and it would require Buck to be totally defeated without displaying any sympathetic qualities. Instead, Steven prints shirts with Buck’s original design for Mayor Dewey’s campaign posters, and the art manages to utilize the actual love between father and son.
So Buck and Steven are closer friends, and Buck is actually taking guitar lessons (presaging an inevitable Greg-Buck-Steven band, I would hope). As cruel as Buck is during this episode, his fundamental goodhearted nature is pretty clear (as it is for everyone else in Beach City), and giving him some reasonable foibles (caring about art and other people’s opinions in a different way from Lars) will make him a more complex character to deploy down the road. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m definitely ready for Buck to take a greater place of prominence in Steven Universe.
- Everyone discovering the shirts is pretty fantastic. Lars, pathetically, desperately wants Buck’s approval, while Sour Cream gives Brian Posehn a great line delivery with, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever been hit in the head with.”
- The Gems are mostly non-presences, but Pearl gets off a good encapsulation of the density of the episode: “Steven, this sounds like a very abstract problem.”
- Sorry if this one is a little messy, guys. I’m filing from out of the country, but nothing could stop me from writing about Ronaldo forming conspiracy theories about getting hit in the head with alien clothing.