To be honest, I don’t think this episode works.
Having previously written about thirty-two episodes of Steven Universe, it’s a true testament to the series consistency that I only rarely covered an episode I didn’t like. There were a handful of episodes I was apathetic about previously, “Drop Beat Dead” for example but the only episode thus far that I didn’t enjoy was “Back to the Moon”. With Steven Universe review number thirty-three, the number of negative reviews increases by one. Unfortunately, the biggest distinction between “Onion Gang” and “Back to the Moon” is that while “Back to the Moon” still provided a lot to praise, “Onion Gang” provides a paltry amount.
There’s about two major reasons I didn’t like this episode. The first is the core of the comedy. “Onion Gang” introduces a group of perennial summer ruffians that hang out and engage in various pranks and twisted child-like activities, with each member basically being a copy of Onion’s character. With the exception of Garbanzo, who’s more Pokémon than man, they’re all essentially silent, mischievous youths named after food (odd considering they seem to share Onion’s penchant for not eating). Obviously it’d be ridiculous to expect the show to be able to develop distinct personalities for four newly introduced characters within the span of eleven minutes while keeping the focus on Steven’s relationship with Onion but this narrowed the episodes humor. There’s an excessive amount of Steven explaining the situation and potential motives behind actions throughout the episode, which results in most of his lines doubling as a joke and explanation to the audience. As a side note, there were certainly instances I wish Steven didn’t directly express the sentiments, primarily when Onion used the leaf to inform Steven of his predicament. The rest of the humor essentially boils down to Onion’s particular oddities.
Here’s the thing, Onion is actually one of the series best source of comedy. “Onion Friend” is one of my favorite episodes in the entire series, while Amethyst’s story with Vidalia is easily the main reason, Steven’s plot with Onion being jam-packed with some of the funniest moments in the show certainly didn’t hurt. The final punchline with the mouse being in Onion’s mouth had me laughing harder than just about any other joke in the show. His running gag of not eating food, and his dips into more psychotic humor matches my comic sensibilities to a tee. One of the issues here is that normally Onion’s jokes tend to be small snippets in episodes he’s largely disconnected from, and they’re now the main source of comedy income. But perhaps the biggest difference, is that his actions are framed far more innocently, which segues into my second problem with the episode.
One of Steven Universe’s most glaring flaw was how Lars would constantly experience perspective altering events in his focus episode but those developments always seemed to reset whenever he had a minor role. Thankfully, the series recently rectified this trend in “Future Boy Zoltron” but I think this episodes suffers from the inverse problem. We’ve spent too much episodes with Onion committing heinous acts for an episode centered around emotionally connected with him too hard of a sell. In the aforementioned “Future Boy Zoltron” he heeded Steven’s advice by disguising himself rather than changing his criminal behavior. Or how about the fact that in “Too Short to Ride” we learn that Onion not only burned down Funland before but was all too willing to repeat that process. While both those moments were genuine highlights for me in their respective episodes, it paints a different depiction of the character than presented here.
Those problems aside, the episode does have its share of highlights. Despite my complaints that the more childish framing of Onion (and crew) neutered the comedy, there were still entertaining moments. Particularly liked the flashing joke and Steven taking Garbanzo’s ‘car accident’ at face value wasn’t too bad either. Not to mention, Steven’s line about pitying himself (“I don’t need you to pity me. It’s the one thing I can do by myself.”) was as poetic as it was funny. My favorite joke of the episode was the multiple Lars in Steven’s phone, implying that Lars either has been handing out fake numbers to Steven or funnier yet, is constantly changing his number and Steven keeps getting a hold of the new one. And humor aside, I quite liked the change in scenery to a more outback forest locale that fits the atmosphere of rapscallions enjoying their youth, and since Steven Universe rarely uses a green background palette, it’s a refreshing change of pace. I think it’s also notable that the introduction to a new location is complimented through our new insight into Onion’s life, revealing another layer to his being.
Ultimately though, my gripes against the episodes aren’t really salvaged from those few bright spots. Despite the fact that I had more to praise in relation to “Back to the Moon”, I’m actually not certain whether I prefer it to “Onion Gang” or not. But one thing I can safely say, is that this is easily the low point for season four thus far in my opinion.