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‘Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal’ Is a Prehistoric Tale and a Modern Marvel

This wordless 10-episode battle of survival is a brutal, gorgeous animated feast.

Primal Adult Swim


Adult Swim

[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch “Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal: HBO Max (the show originally aired on Adult Swim)

There’s nothing on TV that will rattle your insides quite like the victory roars in “Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal.” They come from a prehistoric man, Spear (voiced by Aaron LaPlante), his unexpected dinosaur companion, Fang, or any of the handful of vicious predators that the two encounter on their travels across a pre-civilization Earth.

The Emmy-winning animated series (few wins were more justified in the 2021 season than its award for Outstanding Animated Program, to go with its other four equally deserved trophies for Individual Achievement in Animation) doesn’t need much more of a premise than that. As Spear and Fang fend off their attackers, they also gradually shed their animus toward each other. In 20-minute episodes, the pair alternate between working together and saving each other from an increasingly complex hoard of creatures also doing what they need to survive. “Primal” is the perfect word for it, an ongoing battle of strength and wits against a string of ruthless opponents.

Those screams that usually come in the wake of vanquishing the latest enemy shake all the more because there’s no dialogue surrounding it. LaPlante’s grunts are as expressive as Spear’s eyes (all you need to really sense the danger around the corner is watching those two peepers get real wide), which allow the team of animators, writers, and storyboard artists (including Bryan Andrews and Darrick Bachman, who also worked with Tartakovsky on “Samurai Jack”) to really hone in on how these two work in tandem. That goes for the show’s quieter moments as well, where Spear and Fang have to parse out their surroundings to make sure everything is in place for their next step.

Survival is the inherent conflict in “Primal,” one that’s never too far away. But for all of its dismemberments and broken bones and flying viscera, it’s also really funny at times. When the two aren’t dispatching red-eyed forest critters, Fang puts the “Rex” in T-Rex, like a giant razor-toothed mischievous and inquisitive pet that’s always sticking near Spear’s side. Dispensing with any need for setting up labyrinthine plots or lengthy backstory monologues, “Primal” can just observe Spear and Fang in the immediate present. Fang can jump around as she chases a swarm of butterflies while Spear swims the depths of a reef. However fleeting, there are times when the show can let the two of them just exist for a little while.

In those moments, “Primal” can luxuriate in all the surrounding elemental details as the two characters travel across a handful of different climates. After their first showdown in the rain, they set out across frozen stretches of land, desert enclaves, and even a more tropical resting place. “Primal” already has a man and a dinosaur coexisting, so it uses that elastic logic to let them and their surroundings bend to whatever the next chapter of the story needs. Just like the ecosystem around them is fungible, so are the other species they come in contact with. The longer the season stretches, their foes become a mix of the recognizable with some fantastical wrinkles added for good measure.

That way, “Primal” excels at both stillness and chaos. The extra attention on environment means that there’s a spatial awareness to where Fang and Spear and the threats are at any given moment. With the one super-sized opponent or a throng of malicious pests, there’s a clear objective to outlasting them all, wherever they might be situated. (Also worth noting: “Primal” really masters the art of the tooth. Even the tiniest little crawlers have menacing chompers, all rendered with a few well-placed strokes.)

Maybe most strikingly, this is not a show that shies away from the brutal aftermath. Both of the main characters have suffered great loss and each have their share of Mesozoic survivor guilt. That the show can convey that with just a handful of gestures and brief flashback bursts is one of its greatest achievements. It’s as striking as the rainbow of violence that marks each of their attempts to stay alive. “Primal” is gorgeous and sweeping and elemental, all with a keen eye for what makes life worth the struggle.

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