'Primal': TV Review

Courtesy of Adult Swim
Bold and eye-popping.
10/7/2019

Adult Swim's five-part animated series takes a dialogue-free look at the friendship between a caveman and a dinosaur.

To spend a week or two watching new broadcast shows is to doubt one's certainty that television is a visual medium. I've seen dozens of pilots and immediate follow-up episodes that, under the best of circumstances, amount to an hour or half-hour of exposition and thinly sketched plot mechanics or character details without an inspired bit of visual storytelling or eye-popping set piece among them.

Treat yourself, then, to ocular rejuvenation courtesy of Adult Swim's five-part animated event Primal, which finds Samurai Jack and Clone Wars mastermind Genndy Tartakovsky thumbing his nose at nearly everything else you'll see on the small screen this fall. Epic yet intimate, Primal is awash in eye-popping imagery and if it looked as good as it did on a screener on my laptop, I assume the experience will only be boosted by the scope of your AV setup.

Told without an iota of dialogue, Primal is the story of a caveman — credited as "Spear," though my notes, for no particular reason, refer to him as "Gronk" — who forms an unlikely bond with a dinosaur after they experience parallel tragedies. I'd describe it as a "friendship," but Primal goes back and forth on how much it wants to anthropomorphize any of its main characters.

It isn't like Spear and Fang, as I believe the dinosaur is dubbed, become chummy in a buddy-comedy sense, but they definitely become simpatico in a way that ties back to the show's title. Through the four episodes I've seen, Fang and Spear's primary objective never becomes more or less complicated than "survival." It's a basic imperative that encompasses the need to find food, the need to avoid being consumed by predators and a need to weather the harsh elements. Whatever intellect the two possess, they recognize that when it comes to these primal desires, they're better off together than separately, which doesn't mean that they don't occasionally (or frequently) want to devour each other.

Narratively, writers David Krentz, Don Shank and Tartakovsky keep the 22-minute episodes of Primal quite simple. Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. Rival dinosaurs would like to kill Fang and Spear, so they fight back. Fang and Spear go out hunting for warthogs (or mammoths or whatever) and although their approaches may not initially align, they join forces when the stakes escalate. And it isn't, of course, exclusively unfriendly creatures out to put a stop to them. This is a global situation in which unfettered nature — a roaring river, a change of seasons, a precarious rocky cliff — is also potentially deadly.

Spear is on the cusp of an evolutionary advance, while Fang is on the cusp of extinction, and I'm sure some viewers will be able to identify where they fit on a timeline. Still, it's an increasingly bad idea to take Primal as some sort of over-researched attempt to avoid the tongue-in-cheek anachronism of The Flintstones or the cutesy artifice of Pixar's dismal Dinosaur. It's not history, it's a cartoon, and by the fourth episode the duo's adversaries have gone from zoologically recognizable to exaggeratedly monstrous.

Primal is vicious stuff. It's a rarely pausing saga of bone-breaking, head-severing, tooth-extracting, face-smashing brutality. If Tartakovsky is the series' driving force, sound designer Joel Valentine is its underdog hero, capturing shrieks of animalistic anguish, the patter of rain on leather flesh and the thundering of myriad diverse footsteps pursuing and in pursuit. Credit to composers Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom, whose generally amelodic score helps build tension and patch together extended action beats. Each episode includes multiple chases or fights, all presented with Tartakovsky's trademark blend of gravity-defying grace and grounded muscularity, splashed with vibrant primary colors, predominantly plumes and splashes of shed blood. Think Clan of the Cave Bear directed by Akira Kurosawa.

With art direction by Scott Wills and backgrounds by Christian Schellewald, when Primal isn't being harrowing and savage, it's capable of being pastoral and painterly. Or it's capable of being both. A sanguine ribbon of viscera drifting down a burbling stream as Spear fishes in an early episode is one of my favorite images in the series, one that's both lovely and horrible. The nightmarish quality of this world becomes more and central as the series progresses, though Tartakovsky maintains doses of empathetic sadness and even, in the briefest of moments, humor. Most of the chuckles in Primal come from Spear's brow-furrowed frustration with his stubborn pet, though there's one Looney Tunes-style physical gag that made me laugh unexpectedly.

With its tight focus, I'm not sure I'd want to watch 650 episodes of Primal and I suspect that I was uniquely positioned to appreciate its aesthetic wonders after a lackluster broadcast fall. Still, I devoured 80 percent of this limited series in short order and surely would have watched more. Tartakovsky has long been a distinctive force in TV animation and this is another winner, a spare storytelling experiment that plays like nothing else in the current landscape.

Episodes air nightly at midnight on Adult Swim starting Monday, Oct. 7.