Steven Universe Review: "Cheeseburger Backpack" (Season 1A, Episode 3)

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Airdate: November 11th, 2013

Synopsis: The local mailman, Jamie, delivers Steven his package from “Wacky Sacks”. As the title of the episode suggests, it’s a backpack that’s shaped like a flippin’ cheeseburger. Good timing, too, since the Gems are about to go on a mission. You see, the Gems have to place a Moon Goddess Statue at the top of a Lunar Sea Spire soon, or else the whole thing will disintegrate. With Amethyst’s vote of confidence (under the pretense of “education”), the other Gems let Steven and his cheesy backpack come along with them.

Hilarity ensues.

Review (SPOILERS): We’re still in the early stages of Steven Universe, where characters hadn’t been too fleshed out yet, comedy was the centerpiece, and the animation was more likely to be off. This episode is a prime example of just how far this show’s quality shot up in a short time, yet from the other end.

That’s not to say it’s a bad episode – it’s just not one that seems like it has a whole lot going for it, at least in terms of “favorite episode” lists. However, it does have enough to make it a good third episode.

The plot of “Cheeseburger Backpack” almost seems “color by numbers” – Steven wants to help, yet his naiveté causes problems for the Gems, and he almost detracts from the mission, rather than contribute to it. We’ve seen episodes like this before in comedy – a mild example included Red Dwarf’s “Dimension Jump”, where Rimmer ruins a fishing trip by guilt-tripping his way along.

What I liked about this episode is how it did deconstruct that trope, and flesh out Steven’s character and role a tiny bit. Steven’s cheeseburger backpack actually helps the Gems get to their end game easier – not with a perfect track record, mind you, but well enough, and with the odd bit of foresight, to showcase that he can serve as a great backup role in the Gems’ quest.

Hell, whereas the Gems are battle strategists, Steven’s approach is oftentimes more calmer, more sensitive to the needs of the Gems and the others. It’s a very cool look at the differences between the main trio and Steven – how they handle conflict and obstacles.

Of course, it didn’t go the other way, either – Steven was not revealed to be a “dark horse” in the sense that he managed to defy all expectations and constantly blow through the course. He does experience some miscalculations and errors in his judgment, his prep, execution, and all that. This creates a sense of excitement about what character does what, the consequences thereof, and all that. That, and while the twist at the end wasn’t completely unexpected, the track record actually makes it come off as a bit of a shock at first.

This also allowed for the characters to bounce off of each other. Taking Pearl’s overtly complicated strategies and outright bouncing them with Steven’s down-to-earth strategies is downright hilarious, for one. That, plus the treatment of Amethyst’s impulsive behavior and Garnet’s stoic and straightforward demeanor, all make for some excellent comedy, as well as contribute further to the end-goal.

“Cheeseburger Backpack”, surprisingly enough, also has more world-building than the prior two episodes. While those two were dedicated to introducing characters, this episode does more to show that the Gems themselves are a race that once occupied Earth. That, plus the use of the portal – the first time they use it as deeply as the writers have – helps further construct the techniques that the Gems will use in future episodes.

As far as the necessity of this episode, it’s one of the more “filler-esque” episodes. It’s not necessary to get the myth arc. It helps, but isn’t necessary. That, and the show still feels a bit more like a “goofy sci-fi comedy”, and hasn’t yet reached the comedy-drama balance that would be struck later in the season. It’s a show that’s still finding its footing, and it may be off-putting for first-time viewers.

Still, I can’t say it’s a bad episode. Hell, I think that, at worst, there are one or two duff episodes in Steven Universe’s inaugural season. We’re still in the “good, but not great” territory, where there’s little bad, but not much that really makes the show stand out as much as the later episodes do.

Tidbits:

  • As many viewers might notice, this episode’s animation takes on a much more loose, stretchy tone in comparison to other episodes. The reason is in the director – Ian Jones-Quartey has a reputation within the fanbase for his more “stretchy” art direction. I don’t mind it – I think it fits the overall comic tone for this episode. It is a tiny bit jarring, though.
  • This episode also contains our first look at Gem “biology”, with Pearl noting that the tower disintegrated over a hundred years. Remember that for “So Many Birthdays”.
  • I find the use of the portals interesting. Personally, I feel like they take a more “alien” twist on Star Trek‘s transporters, and in my opinion as a Trekkie, actually innovate on the idea for storytelling purposes. Whereas Trek’s transporters “dissolved” and “reformed” the person in virtually any place they chose, Steven Universe transports those using the portals, but only to fixed points. This allows for longer, more developed arcs, such as one involving one of the show’s recurring antagonists.
Favorite Scene: The Gems need to cross a ravine. Steven, so far having a perfect track record, whips out a raft. No prizes for guessing what happens.
Best Character: Steven – although all four Gems were hysterical, for the first time, we got to see Steven really work within the group.
Memorable Quote: “I just want everyone to know, my plan would’ve also worked.” – Pearl, upon Steven clearing an obstacle via a bagel. So many quotes are hysterical, but this quote just managed to stand out a bit more. Later episodes make this a bit more poignant.
Score: 7.5 (Bronze)
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