Steven Universe Review: “Shirt Club” (Season 1B, Episode 21)

shirt-club-guitar-dad

“It’s so current, you can’t stop it. I’m a taste maker, and I’m gonna keep making tastes… forever.” – Buck Dewey, proving that he would either be the centerpiece of the new Beach City art scene… or be washed up in a tiny Tampa studio by the time he’s 30. Either one works.

Airdate: April 16th, 2015

Written By: Lamar Abrams and Hellen Jo

Plot: Steven has the bright idea to promote his father’s business by putting a silly little drawing of “Guitar Dad” on fliers through the city. Buck Dewey catches wind of this, and decides to put the drawing on T-shirts – all as his father is running an election campaign. The promotion doesn’t do much to support the business… but Buck doesn’t seem to mind – he views Steven as more of an artist.

Review:

The Cool Kids aren’t cool kids.

Don’t get me wrong – they are the most chill group of teenagers in the Steven Universe universe, enough to attract the (tragic) admiration of resident grump Lars. By all accounts, they carry this aura of being the coolest group ever. Yet, they’re not stock “cool kids” – they function within the rules of society (“There’s nothing lame about seatbelt safety!”) They have lives outside of the quasi-clique they’ve formed – there, they are but normal, everyday teenagers, doing everyday, normal teenage things such as working and navigating everyday issues.

And what aspect of normal everyday teenage life is more relevant than tensions between parent and child? Or an unintentional conflict between friends regarding the use of art and what it means?

Hence, “Shirt Club”.

“Shirt Club” is a reintroduction to the pathetic politician Bill Dewey. Mayor of Beach City, he is one of several recurring “older” adults in the Steven Universe canon, as well as one of the show’s occasional dashes of cynicism. (I mean, this show is profoundly idealistic – Aaron Sorkin probably watches Steven Universe with envy.) He is occupied, understandably enough, with his perception as the town’s mayor – constantly in campaign mode, as well (which actually seems to be the modus operandi of the modern presidencies). And given what happens to the town, it takes a lot out of him.

They could’ve just stopped at him being pathetic – he tried to bring back the ocean – and therefore, Beach City’s economy – by using a garden hose. Yet, these writers don’t like to stop at “satisfactory”. No, they try their damndest to write with the perimeters given… most of the time. Thus, we get a somewhat more affable, goofy Mayor Dewey in this episode – he’s still pathetic, but more in that “dorky dad” sense.

Unlike Steven, who has a rather warm and close relationship with his father, Buck’s relationship with Bill is cooler and more aloof. “Lars and the Cool Kids” hinted at this, but this episode seems to confirm it. Yet their distance appears to be influenced, in part, by the effects of age… and in part, by the power of politics. Bill’s focus is on maintaining power – not necessarily by corruption, but through the power of Public Relations. I mean, look at what he’s done – the failed ice cream unveiling (“It melted! Well, you should’ve said that at the meeting!”), the van that constantly promotes his face, confronting the Crystal Gems when the ocean is stolen (only to get shut down by Garnet), all of them are attempts to satisfy the masses. Ergo, politics. I’ll go more into this in my review of “Political Power”.

Not even his son is safe – Bill attempts to cater to the youth so hard that it’s quite embarrassing. Seriously, his marketing reaches Hillary Clinton levels of “how do you do, fellow kids”.* Naturally, Buck is frustrated at this. He’s been for a long time, in fact – emotion between the two is actually rather alien to him. Admittedly, it’s not the most original of plot threads… and, really, that’s as much as I can say about it. Still, to see this laid-back and mellow kid have a frosty relationship with his father does work as a contrast with Steven and the very closer relationship he has with Greg.

Where the dynamic is also turned on its head is that there’s no clear-cut case of Bill being a complete jackass to Buck in this episode – annoying, but not a Jerkass. If anything, Buck turns into something of an antagonist in this episode. Not maliciously, but he sees a new form of art in Steven’s silly little drawing – and the ability to promote said art as an artform. What he doesn’t see is Steven’s intent – to promote his dad for the sake of promoting his dad. Buck distributes the shirts for the sake of promoting Steven’s art and getting whatever reaction. Again, it’s not done for any malicious reason – it’s just a bit of aloof ignorance on his part.

I will concede, though, that this does might a bit off for Buck, at least from one angle. For the most part, the Cool Kids are shown to be nothing but nice, open to everybody and everything. This aloofness on Buck’s part can feel a bit off for newer viewers. In the episode’s defense, the other angle of it expanding on Buck as an individual rather than as part of a mass is equally valid – I mean, the Cool Kids wouldn’t nearly be as interesting if they were Cool Kids, rather than Buck, Sour Cream, and Jenny. Still, for a show that tries to make it’s characters sympathetic, this does seem a bit off to make a character this brazenly selfish.

Steven is unnerved by this – especially since the reaction of the shirts is less “business positive” and more “ha ha, look at these shirts, ha ha”, and Buck loves the trend of “goofy shirts drawn by an amateur”. The Crystal Gems go in to save the day, right? Well, no – they have a lot more important things on their plate – possible alien invasion, repairing deep psychological damage, and the issue de jeur, assembling Scandinavian flat pack furniture. Garnet effectively forces Steven to go it alone – they don’t know the answer to such a silly sidequest in Steven’s life. For once, Steven is going to have to step up to the plate and resolve it himself.

His resolution? “I’ll make them understand! I’ll make them all understand!”, he laughs as he leaves the Temple. As Mayor Dewey gives his campaign speech, Steve goes up to the roof of a neighboring building, takes out a gun, blows Dewey away, traumatizing the citizens, and starting a new age of fear in America’s smallest towns, where GDR-esque checkpoints mark the presence of Main Street and the President has to deal with mayors on a constant basis, all of whom request security covfefe.

OK, Steven doesn’t assassinate the Mayor. He does, however, turn Buck’s attempts to promote his art back on him by firing a shirt directly at the Mayor’s chest, as well as others into the terrified-as-hell crowd. On the shirt lies Buck’s old drawing of him and the old man, “Vote for my dad” being the text. For Steven, revenge is a dish best served in front of a mirror – it was his way of saying “this is what my art meant to me” Even Buck seems to recognize this a little bit, getting a bit misty eyed after seeing the positive response to it.

It was more than just a bit of childhood nostalgia. Drawings like “Guitar Dad” and “Vote For My Dad” represent possibly the closest bond two male family members could have – one between a father and his son. I mean, it doesn’t always work out that way, but when it does, it does so fantastically.

And yes, the father-son dynamic has been examined many times in many pieces of media – Worf and Alexander in TNG, Homer and Bart in The Simpsons, Rimmer and his father in Red Dwarf, Walter White and his son in Breaking Bad, etc. etc. This isn’t a particularly groundbreaking episode. It doesn’t necessarily have to be groundbreaking – “Rose’s Scabbard” was an episode relating to a lost lover, and it is one of the most moving pieces of television I have ever seen.

It just happens that “Shirt Club” is less memorable overall. Maybe the town-centered episodes are just less intriguing (albeit certainly not “bad”) compared to those focused on the Crystal Gems. There’s less intriguing dialogue, the comedy hits less effectively, and ultimately, it doesn’t have too much of an impact on the show’s canon. “Shirt Club” is a decent breather episode that expands on Beach City, but if you skip it, you ain’t missing too much.

Tidbits:

  • Kinda strange and sobering how “Peace in the Middle East” (read, Mayor Dewey’s attempt to get down with the kids) became more relevant as the episode was being developed.
  • On a lighter note, take note of how the Crystal Gems, these defenders of humanity, who manage to fight off monsters on a weekly basis, who defected from a corrupt interstellar government, one of whom managed to construct a rocket… have a hard time assembling IKEA stools. My money is on either Pearl or Garnet building the one completed stool, Pearl because of the aforementioned rocket and Garnet because of… reasons that will be explored in “Jailbreak” and “Keystone Motel”. (I’m assuming that Amethyst ate one of the boxes.)
  • I love how the Mayor’s bodyguards, as the shirts are fired, leap out of the way, leaving Dewey ripe for a shirt to the chest.

Wrap-Up:

Favorite Scene: Steven firing T-shirts into the crowd. Yeah, I laughed.

Best Character: I guess I have to give this to Buck Dewey, for the character development.

Memorable Dialogue: This exchange between Steven and the Crystal Gems:

Steven: It’s an emergency. You have to help me get rid of all the shirts and stop Buck from making more!

Pearl: Have the shirts come to life and possessed the bodies of their wearers?!

Steven: No! They just-

Amethyst: Are people catching on fire when they put on the magic shirts?

Steven: No, no, they’re just-

Pearl: Are the shirts destroying the wearers’ will to continue on in this mortal coil, thereby shutting down Beach City?!

I just love how the descent into the worst-case scenario winds up contrasting with the actual conflict at hand.

Verdict: Bronze. Again, this isn’t because I disliked the episode – it’s just not a particularly interesting one for me. I can take it or leave it. It comes in at #42 in the rankings, in between “Cheeseburger Backpack” and “Beach Party”.

*Note to all future presidential candidates: Pokemon Go to the rustbelt. (Please leave your groans in the comment section below.)

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