Many people of a certain age grew up watching Genndy Tartakovsky cartoons. Even those who aren't aware of the name are surely aware of shows like Dexter's Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls and/or Samurai Jack. Now, Tartakovsky is back with a brand new, five-episode limited series on Adult Swim in the form of Primal, a gripping and violent prehistoric tale. I was lucky enough to catch the first four episodes at this year's Fantastic Fest and, at least for the moment, I'm convinced it's the coolest thing I've ever seen.
Primal, rather simply, centers on an unnamed caveman trying to make his way through an unforgiving and harsh prehistoric land filled with dinosaurs and other beasts. It's a hunt or be hunted, kill or be killed, survive and adapt or die situation. If the show is about anything, it's about man's relationship to nature, beasts and all. Sometimes that's man vs beast. Sometimes that's man forming a symbiotic relationship with certain beasts. In this case, pretty much all of the time, it's unbelievably entertaining. And violent. Oh so violent.
From a purely artistic standpoint, it's hard to argue against the show. Gendy Tartakovsky brings all of the distinct style of Samurai Jack and applies it to a King Kong-esque, monster-filled wasteland. Tartakovsky has never undertaken something so overtly savage and bloody, yet his style was tailor-made for it. That said, this is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. From pretty much moment one right up through the end of episode four, it's hard for even a few minutes to go by without copious amounts of bloodshed. That having been said, the bloodshed isn't pointless. It speaks to the harsh nature of survival.
From a storytelling point of view, Primal accomplishes an incredible amount without the use of a traditional, dialogue-driven narrative. Nobody speaks. It's, at best, grunts and roars. Everything that is translated is accomplished through eyes, movement and subtext. It's a tough thing to pull off effectively but this does it about as good as anything I've ever personally seen. Again, Gendy Tartakovsky's style and ability as a visual storyteller milks the most out of this concept. In the hands of a lesser talent, it may have felt like a fun idea that just didn't get there.
For my money, I can only imagine someone not liking this show if they're outright opposed to the notion of dinosaurs, rad monsters and prehistoric settings, or if someone simply can't handle a story being told without dialogue. To me, this felt like an imaginative kid who dumps out a bunch of toys, that maybe wouldn't seem to go together, historically speaking, but lets their imagination run wild. Only, it's been animated beautifully with a compelling and emotionally affecting narrative. The whole time I was watching it, all I could picture was Butthead, of Beavis and Butt-Head fame, saying the word "Cool" over and over again.
This seems like the kind of thing I would have stumbled upon when I was up past my bedtime in my teenage years, forcing me to lose sleep in an oh so worth it late night watch. Adult Swim has always felt a little ahead of the curve, in terms of making interesting and unique programming for a small, niche audience that doesn't necessarily have to appeal to everyone. In that way, this feels very much at home on Adult Swim, in the very best of ways. Primal debuts on October 7.