[This post is essentially a text version of the above video, just with a few additional sections. Feel free to check out one, both, or neither.]
What’s that? Who’s there? Get in here, we’re talkin’ about Primal.
Primal is an animated adventure/horror/fantasy broadcast television show which premiered in 2019.
If you’ve heard of this show, it’s probably because you’re already familiar with the work of Genndy Tartakovsky to some degree.
And if you’re not familiar, Tartakovsky is basically animation royalty, thanks in large part to another show he created back in 2001 called Samurai Jack, which was rebooted in 2017 because that’s what we do now.
He was also a co-creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and was heavily involved in Powerpuff Girls and Star Wars: Clone Wars, which is an animated show that people seem to like.
Oh yeah, and he directed Hotel Transylvania. And Hotel Transylvania 2. And Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation.
But we’re not here to talk about Tartakovsky, not really. Suffice it to say that he’s a very talented animator and filmmaker, and while he’s well past the point of actually animating his own stuff, Primal is very much a Genndy project.
If it isn’t already obvious, I was very, very late to the game with Primal, and that probably has a lot to do with my own feelings about Tartakovsky’s past work.
Since this review is going to be even more subjective and personal than my usual stuff, I’d like to talk about those feelings before we get going.
Genndy’s 2D shows definitely have their own set of signatures. The character designs all have a very similar style. There’s a very specific sense of movement and intense action. And the shows even tend to sound similar, which makes sense given the state of Cartoon Network cartoons at the time and also because the Sound Designer on Primal has worked on just about all of the shows we mentioned earlier.
Soooo, while I really enjoyed Dexter’s Lab and Powerpuff Girls while I was growing up, I could never watch them for very long. And as for Samurai Jack, it never appealed to me very much. It just didn’t click with me, despite the ultra-cool visuals.
What’s been keeping me from enjoying all of these Tartakovsky shows? Can I just blame it on incompatible tastes and move on?
Well, after several minutes of reflection, I think I’ve figured it out. In truth, it always bothered me that the characters in all of these shows were shallow, very 2D. (pun potential ignored)
Now, if I list out some of my favorite and least favorite cartoons from the 90s and early 2000s, there’s a definite trend with regards to character.
Favorites: Rugrats, Spongebob, Teen Titans, Last Airbender, Hey Arnold, Recess
Least Favorites: Samurai Jack, Ed Edd & Eddy, Billy and Mandy, Invader Zim, Ren and Stimpy, CatDog
Very few of the characters in any of these shows had any real depth, except for the cast of Hey Arnold and Avatar, but even in shows like Rugrats and Teen Titans, I at least got a sense for character depth because, well, the characters were allowed to have different emotional states and were generally very open about those emotional states.
Is this leading to an argument that kids’ shows should always have deep characters? Noooope. Not at all. For a lot of the shows on the other side of the fence, the approach to character and humor was pretty simple and I guess we could also call it traditional.
Lots of visual gags, lots of yelling, lots of goofy sound effects.
For whatever reason, that approach didn’t appeal to me when I was 8 or 10 or 12. And it still doesn’t, though I can now appreciate the creativity behind a lot of those shows.
So when I saw a short clip of Primal sometime last year, it immediately reminded me of Samurai Jack, and that removed a lot of the excitement for me. Ok, here was another show that was basically going to be Samurai Jack again but with a different setting and a different-shaped badass protagonist who was gonna kill some guys real good.
Then, about a week ago, I actually watched it.
Hmmmmmmmmm it’s time to really talk about Primal, and it’s gooooooooood.
So, I didn’t go into the show completely blind. Like I said, I’d seen a clip, but then I got a much closer look thanks to a promotional clip that Adult Swim released a little while back.
It’s a pretty simple behind-the-scenes thing that communicated some compelling information, including these little tidbits:
-There was a conscious effort to focus on slow pacing
-Genndy does not have a Russian accent
-The animation was handled by a French studio
I watched the show online, through legitimate means [wink], and then I sat down to talk about it with you!
So why did I like it? How did I get converted?
lllllllll, it all starts with that pacing. Most of what I like about Primal is thanks to its pacing.
I could try to call the show’s pacing slow, but it’s really not that slow. It’s really only slow compared to all the animated television shows of the last 20 or 30 years.
If you want sloooooow, go ahead and watch Jeanne Dielman or My Dinner with Andre or Werckmeister Harmonies or My Neighbor Totoro.
So it’s not at the far end of the scale, but the pacing is still greatly appreciated within the context of contemporary animation and contemporary mainstream entertainment in general. [Rise of Skywalker clip]
Each episode of Primal is 22 minutes long, and as far as I’m concerned, the show hits a wonderful balance between slow, lingering moments that do wonders for character development, which we’ll talk about soon, and wild n’ crazy action sequences that satisfy Samurai Jack diehards, I assume.
The title of each episode gives you a very good idea of what the big action sequence is going to be about. And if all you want is the action, just skip ahead to the 12-minute mark.
But the show isn’t just about the action. It’s a decent part of the identity, but it really isn’t the big draw, and on rewatch, I’m not going to be especially excited to see all the fights again. They’re fine, very exciting, appropriately violent and reasonably varied, but they still kind of blend together.
For me, the characters and overall atmosphere are the real triumph, and these are allowed to flourish because of the (relatively) slow pacing.
There are so many opportunities to just enjoy the backgrounds and the variety of biomes the characters find themselves in. And all that action and mortal peril throughout the show make the quiet moments enormously enjoyable.
In particular, there’s one very intense episode that starts off with quite a long section where the characters finally just get a break. They find a nice spot to hang out and we get some fun comedy moments as Spear and Fang rest and talk to each other, without words, of course.
The world of the show is extremely dangerous and threatening, which is kind of the point, but it’s also still a comforting, escapist environment. I’ll talk more about the worldbuilding when we get to story, but the setting suits the pacing very well.
The tone and atmosphere are strong and specific, and when I think back on the show, they’re most of what I remember, apart from some especially memorable character moments.
Now, I can’t praise the slow pacing as revolutionary because it’s not. As I already mentioned, I prefer the pacing here to that of just about any other “cartoon” in recent memory, except for maybe Adventure Time or Steven Universe.
But at the same time, it’s somewhat adventurous these days to push for slow pacing in just about any production.
In other words, it’s weird to talk about this aspect and put it in perspective. Genndy and his team and even Adult Swim deserve a certain amount of credit for making a show like this one right now, but it’s also not as risky as it might seem because Genndy and Adult Swim already have dedicated audiences.
But who else would even be willing to produce something this different and this slow right now?
Still, despite all that cultural context, I think it was definitely the right decision here, now, for this specific project.
And for me, the pacing ties in very strongly with the show’s visuals, specifically the aspect ratio and composition.
Primal’s aspect ratio is 2.39 : 1, which is part of a group of aspect ratios commonly lumped into the Cinemascope category, which was used very frequently in film projection way back in the day. In fact, Contempt is in Cinemascope, and you already know how much I love that pile of cliche male insecurities.
But we need to draw attention to how rare this aspect ratio is in television. It’s almost never used, as far as I can tell, both in televised animation as well as live-action shows.
Even legacy dramas like Mad Men, which was actually shot on film for the first few seasons, are shown in HD standard aspect ratio, 1.7 : 1 or 16 : 9.
Even Samurai Jack has simply followed TV standards of the time.
So right away, Primal is setting itself apart and associating more closely with cinema. Now, in terms of how that space is filled, there seem to be some very clear compositional influences from fairly predictable sources.
A lot of the framing brings to mind old samurai movies and spaghetti Westerns, and by the way, a lot of spaghetti Westerns and American Westerns are basically just localizations of samurai movies, so there’s a persistent connection between these two genres.
In particular, Primal really likes to do extreme close-ups of characters’ faces, especially for Spear, and the obvious connection there, at least for me, was to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which, oh, look at that, shares its aspect ratio with Primal.
But what about the color choices and the animation? Well, I can’t speak to these in a highly technical fashion, so I’ll just say that I love what the team did in both of these areas.
The backgrounds are either good or fantastic, and I appreciate how they’re not shy about looking painted or drawn. I should probably elaborate on that.
Many long-running American animated shows tend to use very clean character models and backgrounds. Just look at Family Guy or The Simpsons or even Adventure Time. When the viewer isn’t looking at individual strokes, it can enhance immersion. The backgrounds are just there to be in the background. Highly functional.
These backgrounds can sometimes look great in a different way, but they don’t tend to look very human, if that makes sense.
Now look at this background from Primal. The shading looks like someone drew it. You can even see some squiggles that look a little out of place. A lot of the colors look painted. There’s a lot of variation and depth, which just looks more human and organic to me than a background made up of flat colors and super-clean lines.
The credit here goes to Background Designer Christian Schellewald (and Art Director Scott Wills), who has worked on all kinds of animated movies, including Puss in Boots, which, visually, is actually pretty good.
Did I mention this is a show about a caveman and his dinosaur friend? It’s such a simple premise that I assumed the characters would take a backseat to all the fightin’ and blood and wooooaahh.
That assumption came from my own experiences with characters in Genndy shows of the past, as well as from what I imagine to be the average Adult Swim viewer:
A 36-year-old dude who still wears Hot Topic and who would compete on Ink Master but get knocked out in the very first round.
Although, nowadays, post-Rick and Morty, the average Adult Swim viewer is probably just a suburbanite teenager who thinks he’s an outsider because he decided to go stag to Homecoming.
But hey, here was yet another area where Primal surprised me.
The caveman is Spear. The Dinosaur is Fang. I love them, and it’s weird.
When you want the audience to like a character, there are a lot of cheap and easy ways to do it.
You can make them relatable to the target audience. You can make them funny. You can make them sympathetic.
In the first episode, Primal goes with the sympathy route, for both characters. But it doesn’t stop there.
After a certain number of fights, there’s a danger of making the characters seem like invincible Mary Sues who will always do the right thing and always win the day.
Instead, the show gives our characters a very hard time. Their only goal is to find food and continue to survive. They don’t seem to have any real ambitions beyond that, which makes sense for who they are at the core.
Rather than making them good buddies from the get-go, their relationship builds over the course of basically the whole first season.
At first, the only real reason they hang out together is because it benefits them both. It’s abundantly clear that they could each kill each other without too much trouble. This results in an initial respect that expands to actual friendship and care.
In particular, there’s an episode where Fang gets absolutely trashed, within an inch of her life. Now, I thought this would be the kind of show where she would be fine soon enough and the stakes and sense of danger would disappear.
I think I can blame this expectation on contemporary action-adventure fare, especially the stuff coming out of Disney because, as Marvel and Star Wars have taught us many times, if a character gets hurt real bad or even just evaporates, don’t worry, they’ll be back. They might even come back within 30 seconds, obliterating the stakes in the process.
But Primal gives us an entire episode where Spear goes to extreme lengths and puts himself in a great deal of danger just to keep Fang safe. Yeah, by the end of the episode, Fang is more or less back to normal, but thanks again to that slow pacing, it feeeeels a lot longer. It’s even kind of boring at times, but that just hammers home the weight of what we’re seeing. We’re given the chance to reflect on how much these characters have changed since the first episode. All of this is unnecessary. Stuff gets killed all the time. Characters regularly do things for very simple, selfish reasons. But this episode, which just so happens to come in the middle of the season, makes our lead characters, and the world as a whole, more interesting and more relatable.
Another worry I had at the start was that Fang would be made likable by acting more or less like a dog. There’s definitely a precedent for adventure stories about a lone wanderer and his pet. But that’s just not the relationship these two characters have. They’re peers more than anything else. They’re both parents, or, ya know, ex-parents.
It also just helps that Spear doesn’t use words. That way, when they talk to each other, it kind of feels like they’re on the same level.
They have distinct personalities, too, which allows them to react differently to specific situations.
Here’s a good rule of thumb when you’re trying to decide whether a character is well-written. Just ask yourself whether you know how they’d act in any given situation.
If I asked you to imagine what Michael Scott would do if he found himself at an AA meeting. That’s a strong, distinct character.
I have a good sense of what Spear and Fang would do just about anywhere, which is a good sign, and yet I feel so much room for further character development with these guys.
And thanks to the final episode, I’m certain we’re going to get some interesting developments sooner rather than later.
Alright, time to talk about story. In terms of structure, there isn’t all that much going on here. Every episode starts off pretty slow, our characters do some stuff, then they come face to face with the central conflict.
A few episodes spend most of the running time building up to that one big conflict, and I liked these a good bit.
But while there’s nothing groundbreaking happening here in terms of story, I still wanted to comment on how the show’s sense of story feels to me, because it’s the feel that makes it satisfying.
Primal’s story reminded me a lot of adventure serials and comic books. Everybody and their mom knows that adventure serials were a big influence behind giant media franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
Flash Gordon is probably one of the most well-known adventure serials from back in the day. You have a lead character with straightforward motivations and some compatriots, and in each episode they try to deal with some crazy new challenge.
Every story contributes to a larger narrative but each story also feels satisfying in itself.
Primal is one of the first times I’ve seen the appeal of this format, except maybe outside of Avatar.
It’s just always exciting to jump into a new adventure, especially when you actually like the characters.
But one of the major drawbacks of this format, for me, is length, as in the length of the overall show, how long it lasts.
So far, Primal has done a very good job of escalating conflict. The threats generally get more intense, and that’s just good storytelling. But as you might have noticed, media properties that have to keep going, that have to keep iterating for literal decades, really start to fall apart after a certain point.
Our favorite superheroes can only save the world so many times before it starts to feel like there’s no real danger. And none of the characters can really die because it’s profitable to have them around.
And as we all know, the 21st century has very much been a time of dragging recognizable media properties out of the grave. Nothing is allowed to die. If there’s even a remote chance that an old property can still make money, it’ll come back and get the green light ahead of any kind of new, original content.
And these undead properties strain to come up with compelling new ideas. Manga, anime, daily newspaper comic strips, video game franchises– they all struggle to invent reasons for the audience to care after trotting out the same basic formula for many, many years.
So here comes Primal. It definitely has the potential to run for years and years. In fact, with the tease at the end of season one, I’m already slightly worried about the show becoming more … typical? I’m not really sure about its longevity.
And this creates a weird dynamic where I don’t want the show to get too popular because then it might stick around long enough to get bad.
Where TV shows are concerned, I’m all in favor of burning out rather than fading away.
Some of my all-time favorites are shows that got cut really short or shows that knew when they needed to stop. And sure, even with those, there’s always a risk of it coming back and being bad (Arrested Development), but I’d like to believe that when something good ends, it’s just done. (LCD Soundsystem)
This might be over-reaching, but under the current economic system, if something is truly special and it can be monetized, it is destined to be wrung dry and be made bland and uninteresting in the process.
To be clear, as it stands right now, Primal’s story has been great, but I can’t help worrying about how that could change in the future.
Things I Didn’t Like Very Much
There were a couple of things about Primal that I didn’t like very much. The first one is sound design.
Iiiiiii’m not a sound design expert, but I can tell when certain sounds just don’t fit the tone of whatever piece of media they’re in.
Two hours ago, I mentioned that Genndy has been working with this one sound design guy for many years, and he worked on this show, too, and I felt like a lot of the more cartoony sounds just didn’t fit the show at all.
At worst, they took me out of the story, and that’s not really what sound design is supposed to do.
In particular, there are a lot of hitting sound effects that just sound like something out of, well, Dexter’s Laboratory. More accurately, they sound like something out of a library of stock sound effects.
And yes, Primal is a cartoon, and it’s not that far off from Samurai Jack and the TV cartoons of the early 2000s, but with the film look of the whole thing, I just expected more serious sound design, just in terms of tone.
Similarly, there were times when the music didn’t really seem to fit the tone of the show. Again, I’m not an expert, and again, I’m probably holding this show to the standards of a feature film, and it’s not a feature film.
With both sound and music, I imagined more weighty, contemporary work, but it all comes down to direction and budget and time, right?
Seriously, composers who work in TV often have no time at all to score each episode. And it’s not like they can just create some pieces and slice them up to fit specific cues. Nah nah nah.
So while Primal might have done well to have some cool, ambient stuff or industrial music, it might not have been feasible and also it probably just comes down to personal taste.
Lack of Dialogue
This one isn’t a real complaint. I really admire the show’s choice to not include verbal dialogue. It’s bold, and it doesn’t at all get in the way of the storytelling. As I was saying earlier, it actually helps the two main characters feel like peers.
However, if I was going to recommend the show to a viewer, and I do recommend it, I feel that I have to at least mention the lack of dialogue.
Because, despite my somewhat extensive experience with media that utilizes non-traditional or experimental narrative techniques, I still had a hard time paying attention to Primal every once in a while.
It’s not boring, and visually there’s always something compelling on screen, but if you’re really used to hearing characters talk, with words, you might have a hard time staying tuned in.
The lack of dialogue is a bonus for the show overall, but we’ve all been trained to espect dialogue with our stories.
With absolutely any show or piece of media, there’s a temptation to only credit and talk about the head honcho, whether it’s the director or the showrunner or a series creator. It’s just easier for our human brains to simplify it in that way, and us humans also have a tendency for hero worship, which is a big topic.
In reality, a whole lot of skilled people have to work together to make something like Primal, and while I’m not just going to read off the credits, I wanted to mention an interesting aspect of the production.
Studio La Cachette is credited with Animation Production for Primal, and since they were featured prominently in that behind-the-scenes video, I can show clips.
It’s a French studio, and right away that sets Primal apart from most other American animated TV shows.
For one, a lot of “American” animated shows aren’t actually animated in the U.S. They’re written here and storyboarded here, but the actual animation is very frequently outsourced, most often to South Korea.
I’m not taking issue with that approach, but I found it very interesting that Primal was animated in France.
So, talking about differing approaches to animation based on country of origin could make for a very interesting conversation, but for now, I’ll say a good number of my favorite animated movies have come from France.
That’s not to say all French animated movies are good or somehow inherently better, but I do think that when a specific culture values visual artists, it will probably produce some highly skilled visual artists, and on a pretty large scale. [the sweatbox clip]
Ya know, like how the U.S. values people who make obscene amounts of money from the ideas and work of others, so we produce people who are really good at making obscene amounts of money from the ideas and work of others.
Studio La Cachette deserves a lot of credit for the animation itself. I love the movement in this show. It still feels like a Genndy show, but there’s a refinement here I really enjoy. It just doesn’t feel quite at automated as a lot of American animated TV tends to. Did it also help that there were only ten episodes to animate, giving them more time than the average animated show? Yeah, for sure, but I still wanted to mention this studio and the good work they did here.
What else did I want to say here at the end? I don’t know.
Should you watch Primal? Probably. It’s on HBO Max now. They’re really trying to be a hub for animation streaming, although I haven’t heard about them bankrolling any original animated projects so we’ll see.
With any piece of animation, my love for it is almost always dependent on how different and special that piece feels.
Primal does indeed feel special, not by being groundbreaking but by hearkening back to an earlier period in animation and in filmmaking.
It’s very easy to get lost in this one and you can easily snuggle up in its pacing. Primal is a place to be. It’s harsh and sometimes challenging, but it’s also comforting and pleasant and strangely satisfying, kind of like the real world, except here the threats can be seen, fought, and defeated.