Genndy Tartakovsky’s newest animated series is an epic landmark for the medium
Genndy Tartakovsky is something of a legend to longtime fans of Cartoon Network and quality serial animation. A veteran of The Powerpuff Girls and creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, Tartakovsky achieved the next best thing to cartoon creator sainthood when his signature series Samurai Jack premiered in 2001(just as the anime craze sweeping the states was nearing its zenith). Featuring a taciturn time-traveling hero, long deliberate stretched of dialogue-free narrative, and action that set the bar for “kids cartoons,” it seemed destined to be the work he would always be remembered for.
But that was B.P. — Before Primal.
Beginning life as one of his earlier conceptual projects that he then let lie fallow for decades, the Adult Swim action/survival horror animated series was inspired by vintage pulp novels, heroes like Conan the Barbarian, and films such as The Revenant. After three successful films, Tartakovsky cashed in his Hotel Transylvania clout to finally bring the series to life, with the first half of Season 1 set to air in October of 2019. Offered far more creative freedom — including a higher rating for the savagely graphic violence — Tartakovsky took the implicit promise of the show’s evocative visual pitch (a caveman riding a dinosaur) and expanded it into a grand tapestry of survival.
*SPOILER WARNING: This piece will contain minor spoilers and Season 2 of Primal, and somewhat larger ones for Season 1*
Taking place in a fantastical primordial earth, the series’ bulky art style and penchant for stillness will be as familiar to fans of Samurai Jack as the jaw-dropping set pieces, but this is a show that is (almost) entirely free of dialogue. We’re introduced to the caveman “Spear” immediately before he loses his family in a savage dinosaur attack, showcasing both the show’s willingness to snatch characters away as well as its ability to show characters musing on abstract concepts like mortality and mourning completely through visuals. About midway through the pilot, Spear unexpectedly bonds with a T-rex (“Fang”), and they end up joining forces to fight the even bigger dinosaurs that caused the pair of them so much grief and pain.
Not a bad pitch for a season, right?
NOPE, THAT’S JUST THE FIRST EPISODE.
There are four pillars that I feel demonstrate why Primal is simply one of the best pieces of media we’ve gotten in the past decade, and the first (and most immediately obvious) is Tartakovsky’s near unmatched ability to deliver bonkers action in the medium. In addition to Samurai Jack, he spent some of the early ’00s in a galaxy far, far away with Star Wars: Clone Wars, a series that regularly delivered set pieces at least on par with the big-budget Prequel films. Primal not only proves he hasn’t remotely lost a step since Jack’s final season, but the brutality of the setting and the mature rating let him go off in ways that a samurai beheading robots can only gesture at.
However, it would be easy to reduce the action in this series to a mere showcase of graphic violence (and make no mistake, it is both), but Tartakovsky is too good a storyteller to use that as a crutch. Not only does the show only cut loose after very clearly and deliberately establishing setting and stakes (but more on Primal’s patience later), but is all about that delicious “action as character and narrative.” And unlike Jack, here we have a two-hander dynamic that the series can constantly play with, visually inform, and evolve when needed.
After all, this is a show that more or less reaches the perfect form of “What it says on the tin” at the end of the first episode, and still has 19 more to fill. “Spear and Fang” is practically a self-contained animated short film, and so instantly effective as a single piece that I was initially curious what else it could show off without feeling like retreading or wheel spinning. However, that very willingness to burn through story beats as if being chased becomes one of the show’s greatest weapons.
How many times have we bemoaned the modern streaming era proclivity for stretching narratives out unnecessarily long? Of shows that take most of a season to get around to moving the A plot only for most of it to be setup for another theoretical season?
Yeah, Primal ain’t got time for that shit, and tells the viewer as much almost immediately. “We don’t do narrative cul-de-sacs, because we’re too busy being dope. The expected mid-season explosion of tension between partners? No, we’re doing that in episode 2. Did we just kill off a major character halfway through season 1? Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe go fuck yourself — have fun waiting for the next episode. Why yes, that was magic and the afterlife and maybe an alien. You curious about the ‘rules’ of this world? It’ll fucking eat you, is the rules — now sit down and look at all this rad shit that’s happening, we’ll explain ourselves when we’re damn good and ready.”
Comedic rhetoricals aside, this likely holdover from the show’s inspirational roots in pulp adventure novels keeps the narrative thrilling as it bounces around different settings and even sub-genres. An episode-long chase sequence reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road comes not long before a Predator-esque descent into pure nightmare territory soaked in blood and firelight, both packed with enough ideas for a feature unto themselves. When the second season offers up an honest-to-goodness three-parter (holy shit, “The Colosseus” is so damn great), it sprints through a whole-ass season’s worth of characters, settings, and events — even while continuing a previously running subplot.
But what makes this “anything goes, and we’re going right the hell now” pacing really sing is also how patient and deliberate the show is at the same time. For a series with running times well under 25 minutes per episode, there’s a shocking amount of time devoted to pure vibes. It positively luxuriates in the quiet moments between the parts where character go off and turn everything into pulp, either reveling in the eerie score by Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom or using an more environmental chorus. Not only is it canny juxtaposition to make the savage outbursts hit that much harder in comparison, but it also showcases how expressive these characters can be.
The obvious pitfall of a show where almost no one talks is being able to convey emotion and evolving character through visuals alone. Fortunately, this is something at which Tartakovsky excels. He’s spoken about consciously lengthening the running time of shots to cement setting and has pointed to filmmakers like Sergio Leone and his use of long moments of stillness and silence between anything resembling action. This sensibility translates very well to animation, like the Venn diagram between Edgar Rice Burroughs and the luxurious scenery of anime like Your Name.
The animation team’s eye for detail also gets showcased early and often, while somehow becoming even more impressively complex as the show goes on. With surprisingly subtle expressions and canny body language, Primal proves it can do anything from make a T-rex look equal parts horrified and pitying to visualizing the dawning comprehension as one character begins to understand symbolic and even spiritual concepts about another character’s culture. It also plays a key role in slice of life beats, often comedic (Fang is such a giant puppy), sometimes seemingly incidental (like seeing a baby dino learn to swim), but provides much needed balance for how truly heavy the show can get.
The final piece of what makes this show so special comes into relief as the episodic and largely self-contained events of the first season lead into the far more “plot”-heavy second season. The Season 1 finale “Slave of the Scorpion” reveals that we’ve been essentially watching Conan the Dynotopian this entire time (ask your parents about Dinotopia, they might have some cool books to show you), and the more it unfurls its narrative from there, the more the show forces our heroes (and so the viewer) to confront the grisly results of their previously cathartic methods. Especially once Spear and Fang start running into new lands and even civilizations.
Primal is not a show that shames its audience for the sights it chooses to show us, but it does ask us to question our reactions even as it’s also delivering dynamite spectacle. Even the realities of television animation get folded into the structure of the show — a time-saving “recycled animation with different backgrounds and characters pasted in” is also used to underline the deadening grind of the characters forced to fight the same battles for the same masters across the world, reduced to cogs in the machine of war for profit.
The end result of this is a show that can leave you going into an episode wracked with both anticipation and apprehension in equal measure. Not only is the series practically bookended with scenes of gut-wrenching tragedy, but even the way Primal rips through story (and characters) at startling speed works to keep the tenterhooks taught. After so much of the first season is devoted to showing the terrors Spear and Fang had to fight through just to find a few shards of peace, the escalation of new threats trying to snatch it from them builds the pacing of the show to a series of spectacular and emotional crescendos of incredible catharsis. There’s a shockingly tender heart driving this that matches gigantic melancholy with gigantic mirth.
It’s hard to imagine the series ending on a higher note than “Echoes of Eternity,” and Tartakovsky has expressed interest in possibly coming back to Primal as a sort of ongoing anthology series with different settings and casts but a continued focus on low dialogue and high brutality. Maybe ideas from the seemingly non sequitur “The Primal Theory” (though I have thoughts on how that’s already connected) could be explored, or something even more surprising and new. The entire team has more than demonstrated that they’re nothing if not trail-blazers, and I’ll happily follow wherever they choose to go.
But whether this series continues or stops here, this 20 episode saga of grief, violence, love, life, death, hope, and The Most Metal Shit You Have Ever Seen is pretty much as great as the concept of “moving pictures” gets. Likely to be remembered as a defining work, Primal works so well because it so smartly uses all the potential advantages of its medium to reveal just how considered it is below the surface of cathartic spectacle.
“There’s a reason we started painting pictures on cave walls,” whispers the story of Spear and Fang. “Let me show it to you.”
(Primal is streaming on HBO Max.)