Screen Rant admittedly missed the boat with regard to Primal, the new animated series from Genndy Tartakovsky, when it premiered on Adult Swim in early October. That a new series from the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack would go unnoticed is a testament to there being too much TV nowadays. But it’s one that is easily rectified due to shows like Primal being easily accessible long after they’ve aired live. That’s more or less been Adult Swim’s content model for years now, as the purveyor of (naturally) adult-oriented animated fare and some of the weirdest live-action series and shorts around has capitalized on on-demand viewing via a variety of other platforms.
So, in some sense, Primal was destined to be discovered and consumed different by its audience. It’s not for a lack of trying on Adult Swim’s part, as the cabler turned the series into a multi-night event, so as to give audiences the full story of a caveman and his unlikely bond with a carnivorous dinosaur as they find themselves united in grief and a desire to survive in a brutal, bloodthirsty world.
The beauty of Primal is in its relative simplicity. Devoid of dialogue, the series relies on facial expressions, body language, and kinetic action sequences to tell its story. That story, too, is relatively simple: the survival of the aforementioned caveman and his thunder lizard companion. Tartakovsky imagines a world where man and dinosaurs lived side-by-side, a fact that’s all too tragic for the unnamed caveman who witnesses his wife and children being eaten alive by a pack of dangerous, flesh-eating dinos. That opening firmly establishes Primal as a revenge story, one that puts the surprisingly emotive neanderthal on the hunt for the creatures responsible for his family’s death.
The straightforwardness of that plot is soon upended as Tartakovsky introduces a clever wrinkle into his imagined prehistoric world: his dinosaurs are imbued with intelligence - emotional and otherwise - so when a case of mistaken identity brings death to this new dinosaur’s lair, she and her unlikely caveman ally find themselves pitted in a bloody battle against the creatures that killed their respective families.
After watching a single episode of Primal, it’s hard to argue that the story needs anything more than that. But Tartakovsky finds a way to deliver a surprisingly nuanced story of survival that’s packed with action, emotion, and plenty of humor. The characters enjoy a rich relationship despite communicating with one another mostly nonverbally — though there is the occasional bellow and roar as they compete for food or combine their respective talents to take down towering lizards with rows of dagger-sharp teeth. The joy in watching Primal comes not from the frenetic action sequences that will remind viewers of just how great Samurai Jack was — though they certainly help — but rather from how Tartakovsky charts the unlikeliest of relationships from its tragic starting point to one that is, strangely, emotionally fulfilling.
Most of the series premiere, ‘Spear and Fang,’ is spent living with the characters in their moment of loss and anguish, as well as their inevitably violent response to that sorrow. It’s as impressive a premiere any half-hour animated series has delivered in recent memory. It satisfies viewers’ appetites on a number of levels, from the amazing character designs of the caveman and the dinosaur, to the depiction of the brutal, vibrant world they inhabit. Early on, the caveman is seen fishing for his family, and is briefly attacked by an enormous crocodile. It’s an exciting introduction to the harsh environment and the kill-or-be-killed mentality of this world. But it also showcases the level of detail Tartakovsky and his animators put into making the characters’ surroundings feel as though they’re bustling with life. Flies flit around everywhere, and the caveman’s every step is potentially his last as the commute home from the river is interrupted by a pterodactyl looking for a quick snack.
That early attention to detail pays off in the second episode, ‘River of Snakes,’ which, much like Snakes on a Plane, is exactly what it sounds like. However, because Primal has taken pains to draw such a finely detailed world, the episode is free to focus on the still-uneasy relationship between caveman and dino. Their connection plays out like roommates getting to know one another and, inevitably, getting on each other’s nerves. What’s unique is in how the series doesn’t treat the dinosaur like a pet but rather as a complex character all her own and, ostensibly, the caveman’s equal.
It’s a smart and necessary deviation from the expected, one that’s part and parcel to why the series is ultimately so successful. Combine that with some spectacular animation that proves there are some things traditional cel animation is just better suited for, and Primal is earns its place as one of the most exciting and unexpected additions to television in 2019.
Primal season 1 can be streamed on adultswim,com and Hulu.