May. 31st, 2017

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After a brilliant, groundbreaking Seasons 1&2, and a solid S3, Steven Universe slowed down considerably in Season 4, to the point where even devoted fans were wondering if the series had run out of gas. (Too much Steven moping about the sins of the mother, and not enough action.)

But, judging from the four-part "mini-movie" that just kicked off Season 5, all the table setting we had to endure in S4 is paying off big time. "Steven Universe: Wanted" is nothing short of a tour de force, four very different episodes showcasing the wide variety of writing and artistic styles this series has mastered--all in the service of finally bringing Steven to the gem homeworld to stand trial for Rose's crimes.

(Spoilers ahead.)

5.1 ("Stuck Together") is basically a two-hander between Zach Gallison's Steven and Matthew Moy's Lars (who never made it off the spaceship at the end of S4). It's a standard "I'm afraid"/"Hey, I'm afraid too, but you need to work through it" conversation, but it's given a spin by the bizarre sight of Steven and Lars having their little talk while lodged in the body of the giant Topaz. Then that spin is given a spin when the previously mute Topaz starts misting up at the guys' emotional honesty.

It's all very funny, as well as warm, intimate and touching -- until Aquamarine barges in and tells Topaz that fun time is over. They've arrived at Homeworld and it's time to deliver Steven for "The Trial" (5.2).

The design for Steven's trial scenes on Homeworld is radically different from anything the show has done before. There is an enormous amount of borderless white space in the frame, making Steven look even more isolated, and the gigantic figures of Yellow and Blue Diamond even more imposing. The voice work in this ep is phenomenal: Amy Sedaris' Zircon, giving Steven a better defense than he could have imagined, her instinct for seeking the truth shining through, almost despite herself; Lisa Hannigan, showing the cold rage behind Blue Diamond's melancholy; and Patti Lupone, frightening and imperious as ever as Yellow Diamond.

Of course, there's so much to unpack here, plotwise: did Rose actually kill Pink Diamond? Did Yellow Diamond pull off an assassination/power grab and successfully deflect suspicion? We've been waiting for an Earth/Homeworld battle for the entire series; but what if the endgame is a Homeworld civil war?

5.3 ("Off-Colors") is Steven and Lars escaping to (as one reviewer aptly put it) The Island of Misfit Toys. Loved the layout of the cavernous gem kindergarten, and the character designs for each of the off-color gems are eye-catching and distinctive. My favorites: the conjoined Rutile twins; Fluorite, the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland reimagined as a kindly grandmother; and Padparadscha, a clairvoyant Sapphire who "predicts" events that happened a few seconds ago. (It's one of those jokes that's funny the first time, gets irritating, then comes back around to funny again....)

It all wraps up with a literally mindblowing plot twist in 5.4 ("Lars' Head"): Lars dying, and Steven resurrecting him as a human analog to Lion. What a perfect metaphor for Lars' growth in the first three episodes-- the old Lars is dead, he's put his fears behind him, and his mind has literally expanded to new dimensions.

We leave off with so many questions and plot threads dangling: Steven can use Lars as a conduit to Earth, but Lars himself is stranded on Homeworld. Will Steven and his friends attempt a full-on rescue mission? (I bet Sadie would want in on that.) Will Lars and the off-colors lead a new rebellion? Who killed Pink Diamond and why? (Is White Diamond ever going to get involved here?) Will Greg's first three albums ever be released on iTunes?

A strong start to Season 5. Good job, Rebecca Sugar. I'm back in.
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It figures that Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon would roll out the long-awaited third season premiere of Rick and Morty on April Fool's Day -- completely unannounced. (At 11:30 p.m., I tuned into what I thought was Samurai Jack, and I saw Rick talking with an insect creature that sounded like Nathan Fillion. "Waaaaait," I said to myself, "I don't remember this from--auuuugh! New ep! DVR! DVR!")

After all, the universe of Rick and Morty is like a sick cosmic joke, where civilizations exist to power car batteries, a love potion can destroy humanity in one night, and a galactic empire can crumble in minutes. There is no inherent value in life, and anyone who even sees a fraction of the unimaginable terrors lurking in the dark is mentally overwhelmed by the enveloping chaos.

So if that's what the world is like, how do you respond? Rick Sanchez, the smartest human in the universe, grabs the chaos by the throat and bends it to his will. Rick is usually ten steps ahead of everybody else and absolutely ruthless in accomplishing his goals. To a human observer, Rick might be considered a sociopath: he's dangerously narcissistic, and he casually disregards the high body counts he racks up during his adventures. But from Rick's POV, he's just doing what he needs to do to survive under extreme circumstances. ("If the universe is insane, the only rational response is.... ")

Morty takes the human-scale view. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he believes life does have value and meaning, that people need each other and should be kind to each other whenever they can. Rick mocks the kid, calls him naive and an idiot, but on some level, Rick believes this too. Why else would Rick return to his family, twenty years after leaving for the stars? Why else would he go to the insane lengths he went to in this episode, just to put his house in order?

"The Rickshank Rickdemption" (3.1) is Rick pretty much upending the entire galaxy to rearrange his domestic life to his satisfaction. It is beautiful and terrifying to behold. Rick starts the episode in galactic prison, his brain under deep probe, linked to a smarmy and overconfident Inquisitor (Fillion, absolutely perfect) who's rooting around Rick's head for scientific secrets. In no time flat, Rick hijacks the probe, trades bodies with the Inquisitor, then goes on a bloody rampage, switching bodies until he gains access to the galactic currency--which he calmly devalues to "zero." (Cue mass panic.)

With the Galactic Federation crippled (and the Council of Ricks destroyed), Rick is free to live with his family on Earth without constantly checking over his shoulder. And poor Jerry--who was doing nicely under Federation rule--loses his job and gets screwed again. He's had it with Rick messing with his life, so he gives his wife an ultimatum: your father or me. Beth, of course, chooses Rick. Bye, Jerry; game, set, and match, Rick.

(Yeah, Jerry's a loser and always will be, but I was proud of him here. He took a stand and lost, but he's going out on his feet, not on his knees. And if Rick's totally insane final monologue to Morty is any indication, the family might eventually come around to his point of view. You haven't seen the last of Jerry Smith!)

So Rick is now in complete control of the family, free to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. (Is anybody else frightened?) Can Morty or Summer or anyone stop him before he kills the entire Smith clan (again)?

Season 3 proper starts in July.

Next: Bob's Burgers and the animated family sitcom.

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