Animated shows, attempted escapism, quarantine depression… annnnd Steven!

Fighting depression in quarantine means creating new rituals. I’m reworking what connection and joy feel like. I like to go on long walks, stretch my legs and see the changing colors of outside season to season. I like to play candy crush on my phone like it’s 2010. Mostly, I like to watch cartoons. This part of my ritual is crucial. I desperately need to watch shows with blazing, hypnotizing colors; shows that make me feel like I have to put on SPF to protect my skin.

These are the kind of shows that maybe pre-pandemic I would watch with a group of friends. A low-key Friday night when we’d all be tired from being at the office all week, we’d all gather around the TV, maybe a drink in hand. Animated shows felt easy to watch, pleasant enough to please everyone, nothing too heavy. These shows felt more like a social activity than a show I’d watch on my own.

As the pandemic grew more dire, and it became impossible to be in groups of friends anymore, I started watching more and more cartoons alone in my apartment. I had no interest in watching anything else. When watching TV, I wanted to be taken elsewhere. I didn’t want to reflect on the past world we were grieving, the society we hoped to grow out of, shed like peeled skin. I wanted to be taken to other realities, on a journey shrouded in secrets and mythology, wrapped in the familiar feel-good animated visuals.

This is what brought me to Steven Universe, and The Midnight Gospel. Steven Universe is a show originally meant for kids, it aired on Cartoon Network. The Midnight Gospel is meant for adults released on Netflix, but was created and animated by the same person who created Adventure Time, another Cartoon Network show. But watching these shows felt very similar, not just because they’re animated. Each show uses the animation medium to enhance tough discussions about moving on from past wounds, accepting your pain and allowing yourself to feel difficult emotions. Watching these shows reinforced acts of introspection that are crucial to my understanding of myself and how I operate as a person with depression. What it means to not just walk through everyday, but to actually thrive.

Steven Universe tells the story of a boy (the titular Steven), who is being raised by his mother’s best friends in a place called Beach City. His mother’s friends aren’t human, they’re otherworldly beings called The Crystal Gems, who are the self-appointed guardians of Earth, and the universe at large. They’ve been trapped on Earth, unable to leave for thousands of years, because they escaped their “home world” to build a new life with humans. They have physical forms that look like human beings, but their life force comes from their gems, attached to their forms. The gems, named Pearl, Amethyst and Garnet, have special powers like super strength and magical weapons. It’s very hard for them to die or cease to exist, as humans do. Steven has a gem attached to him, given to him by his mother, but he is also part-human. The Crystal Gems go on mystical, dangerous adventures across the world, and Steven slowly builds the strength and ability to go along on these journeys to help other gems, as well as his fellow humans who live in Beach City. The show’s story unfolds itself over time — selectively immersing us in the past, before Steven was born, to provide context to where the story is at the present.

The Midnight Gospel follows main character Clancy Gilroy, who lives in a dimension known as the Chromatic Ribbon. Clancy owns an “unlicensed” multiverse simulator, which allows him to travel to various planets, across timelines and possibilities, all in states of disarray. As he travels, Clancy records interviews with residents of the planets for his “spacecast”, a visual and audio program that he sends out into the universe in hopes that others will find and listen to it. The audio heard in the spacecast is pulled from early recorded interviews on real-world podcast The Duncan Trussell Family Hour. The show animates these recordings to show Clancy recording an interview as him and the subject go on a new wild adventure through the planet Clancy has traveled to. One episode is set on Earth during a zombie apocalypse, one is set on a medieval planet in the middle of a life or death quest, another is a totally flooded world, with an elaborate ship and a crew made up of only cats. Clancy explorers existential questions about life, death, meditation, addiction, love and more.

I’ve spent a lot of time since March thinking about what qualifies as a loss. What qualifies as grief. How to sit with those emotions, how to handle when they loop back again when you thought you’d moved on to something better, or at least something more manageable. Despite the songs, the humor, the sparkly gems, Steven Universe is a show about mourning, and how to honor and learn from pain. The main plot of the show is based around Steven growing up and learning about his magical powers, which he inherited from his mother, Rose Quartz. She was an extremely powerful gem, who led a revolution on Earth and stood as the leader of the Crystal Gems. He never met his mother, because she disintegrated her physical form for Steven to exist as part gem, part human.

Steven’s powers reveal themselves over time, in moments of joy, stress, anger and infatuation. They show up like any emotion, protection technique or attachment style. Steven has a family he loves made up of The Crystal Gems, and his dad, Greg. But he always feels like something is missing. His existence came at the sacrifice of his mom, beloved by the rest of his family. The family left feels both grateful and resentful, both supported and abandoned. As Steven grows up, he has to learn what to do with these conflicting feelings, how to channel them, verbalize them, move forward instead of resigning to them. Steven’s journey is captured by the tone of the show, which starts off as a silly, lighthearted comedy, and quietly, with no change to the 11-minute episode length, starts diving into what experiencing trauma looks like and feels like, how all encompassing moving on can be.

While The Midnight Gospel maintains some of the whimsy and silly humor of its sister show Adventure Time, there’s an undercurrent of questioning in the plot, more uncertainty and confusion about what it means to be alive. The animation brings these conversations to life, visualizes them with busy patterns and fantastical creatures. It’s almost easy to tune out while watching, stare like it’s a screensaver from your old family computer, maybe fall asleep on the couch. But the eccentric visuals enhance the audio, they’re detailed with the endless possibilities of animation, but connected to very real themes. In one episode, a character talks in-depth about how she doesn’t fear death, as she’s put through a meat grinder. In another, Clancy discusses forgiveness and connection with others, while on a revenge quest with a character looking to avenge her boyfriend who was killed.

The show has its most touching moments when it connects Clancy to his family, the people who knew him before the spacecast, before the excitement of the multiverse simulator. Later in the series, Clancy gets a call from his sister, Sarah, who tells him she’s not mad at him anymore for taking her money to buy the simulator, and that she still cares about him. The last episode of the series is all about Clancy and his mother, who has been diagnosed with stage-four cancer. His mother encourages him to cry, to let out his emotions, and accept the circumstances and inherent sadness of loss the world has thrown at them both, and eventually throws at us all.

Clancy tries to run away from his past traumas, and they still loop back, even to the otherworldly place he thought he was safe. But more importantly, despite what he’s experienced, Clancy wants to live. He wants to move past his losses and go on miraculous adventures, capture those moments and document them. Clancy projects his stories into the universe in hopes others will hear them. Shouting into the void is better than nothing at all. Even when the worlds fall to disarray at the end of each episode, or as Clancy leaves knowing he’ll never return, he always has these recordings, these memories that may have otherwise been lost in the shuffle of time.

TV makes me feel more connected to my reality, this world, even if I’m watching shows in fictional, alternate universes. These shows depict the human experience, even if the main characters aren’t “human” per se. The plots don’t shy away from difficult moments, the hard, ugly moments of being a person. Like wrapping a solid bitter pill that dissolves on your tongue the second it hits in a nice layer of sugar to help get it down, to prevent the aftertaste from making you gag. A nuanced way to wade through unplumbed childhood trauma into a fulfilling, bright adulthood that of course, like any satisfying life, has moments of challenge, of triumph.

These “cartoons”, went above and beyond: they made me hopeful again. While watching them I felt the genuine possibility of what often feels like an unattainable option: the ability to ease out of your deepest hole of depression. Evade the really convincing lies that your brain tells you every day, and find a version of the world so full of unconditional love, love without a price, that you didn’t even think was possible even in your most optimistic state of mind.

At the end of The Steven Universe Movie, Steven provides compassion, and a new loving home, for a person from his mother’s past who came to Earth with the intention of destroying Steven. Steven is unsettled that everything seemed so perfect, but with the arrival of this new antagonist, was suddenly falling apart. He says, “There are no happy endings, there’s always going to be work I have to do.”

In the last episode of The Midnight Gospel, Clancy has a run-in with law enforcement. Clancy gets sucked into his simulator, which explodes. He then gets picked up by a train, full of all the people he’s met throughout the episodes. Clancy attempts to take out his microphone to interview the person sitting next to him, but instead asks if he has died. The passenger replies, “Just be here now.”

Steven Universe and The Midnight Gospel represent the possibility of happiness, even if it is not perfect, not typical, feels like at any point it could implode, or crumble in your hands. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happiness. Even if it takes 6,000 years, or traveling through multiple realities and timelines to reach it, it will still feel special. The colors around you will be immaculate. You will feel so safe.

PRX Marketing Intern — Boston-based audio lady