A bright green-blue stream fills the screen. The sound of the jungle — a few buzzing insects, some chirping birds — echo across the soundtrack. A fish slowly swims into the frame, with a few more lazily trailing behind him. Suddenly, a spear comes out of nowhere, stabbing one of these animals in the head. A trickle of red starts to spread through the water. Less than 30 seconds into Primal, the new five-part series from Samurai Jack creator/animator Genddy Tartakovsky (it begins airing on Adult Swim at midnight, starting October 7th), and it’s already laid out the laws of the land: Kill or be killed. Some are predators, and some are prey; they can also switch positions at a moment’s notice. There will be extraordinary beauty, along with brutality and beaucoup blood.
The person holding the spear is a primitive Homo erectus, who the credits refer to as “Spear.” Our slope-browed hero is gathering his lunch, one trout at a time; he also comes close to becoming a meal for several larger running, swimming, flying beasts that cross his path. Cave paintings and some extremely violent flashbacks reveal why he’s alone (should the sight of children being chomped by a gigantic lizard be a trigger for you, even if said carnage is rendered in silhouette, you may want to seek your thrills and chills elsewhere). And then Spear encounters a medium-sized Tyrannosaurus rex, who’s also hunting food. The first episode is titled “Spear and Fang,” so it’s safe to assume that’s his name; it’s an apt handle. He ends helping this dinosaur fend off a larger carnivore — there is always a bigger, badder apex predator around the corner — but not before tragedy strikes one more time. Coming to a mutual realization that they stand a better chance against everything else out there together instead of alone, Spear and Fang head off into the wilderness as a duo, one a species on its way out and the other about to take a big evolutionary leap forward. It’s just your average man and his dino best friend doubling as a prehistoric survivalist odd couple.
Over a quartet of highly bingeable 20-minute episodes, these two hunters will face floods, a freezing snowstorm, angry herds of woolly mammoths, killer vipers, giant red demon bats and a Shelob-sized spider. (The fact that Adult Swim gave members of the press the first four installments to watch but not the climactic fifth one feels like cruel and unusual punishment. You’ll want to gulp all of this down in one sitting.) And while they will grunt, growl and grimly go about the business of staying alive in a pitiless world, neither of them will utter a word. Tartakovsky has purposefully made his man-meets-dinosaur epic completely dialogue-less, all the better to make you fixate on a visual style that suggests Frank Frazetta borrowing Fritz Freleng’s color palette. As with his extraordinary Cartoon Network series Samurai Jack, the animator displays a knack for kinetic, if more explicitly violent set pieces; his signature shot of a character descending downward, sharp object in hand and backgrounds whooshing behind them, gets trotted out to great effect. The first episode ends on a still shot of a triumphant, thick-armed warrior sitting astride a bucking T. rex, a knockout image that could have been plucked from a comic’s splash page, or a dog-eared paperback’s cover, or a mural on the side of a Chevy van.
This is genuine pulp poetry, sans any ooga-booga nonsense and with a formal limitation that’s often a blessing yet occasionally a curse — the similar nature of Spear and Fang’s adventures (run, crouch, avoid jaws, fight, bite and lick wounds without a word) can get a tad repetitive. But the nature of Primal‘s quick, give-’em-10-ccs-of-adrenaline-and-get-out chapters play in the show’s favor. You’re left wanting more even as you recognize that five of these haiku-like genre exercises in a row is probably just the right amount. More importantly, the high-concept nature of what Tartakovsky & Co. are doing here never takes away from the overall accomplishment. TV animation has fallen in to severe ruts of sugary kids’ programming or extreme adolescent grossness; for every toon that dabbles in poignancy (Bojack Horseman) or pubescent messiness in the name of making a point (Big Mouth), there are legions of animated variations on the same old sniggering dirty joke. Primal restores a genuine sense of awe regarding how you can use the format for something besides shits and giggles. It’s storytelling at its most basic, sound and images moving faster than a speeding velociraptor and brimming with soulfulness.