For most creators, producing just one seminal work of art is a fine enough laurel to rest on. Dexter's Laboratory, Star Wars: Clone Wars, and the revolutionary Samurai Jack firmly under his belt, Genndy Tartakovsky's mind-blowing contribution to the medium was already clear. But with his latest work, Primal, Tartakovsky proves that he's just going to keep getting better. In fact, Primal is more Samurai Jack than Samurai Jack was.
It was hard to fully appreciate the groundbreaking work that Cartoon Network showcased in the early 2000s while in the midst of the era. Shows like Justice League, with its widescreen cinematic framing, and Samurai Jack were treating animation targeted toward children with unparalleled levels of respect, and the new Adult Swim programming block elevated the medium even higher as the network allows for even greater creative control.
With this level of control boosted by the move to Adult Swim (and, naturally, by his own reputation) Tartakovsky enjoys free reign to let his imagination and boundary-breaking sensibilities run wild with Primal. The show focuses on a hunter at the dawn of human evolution and his friend, a dinosaur on the verge of his species' extinction, as the two fight for survival in a savage and brutal land of monsters and constant peril. The man is known as "Spear" and the dinosaur as "Fang" in the production notes, although that's never revealed in the show itself. It couldn't be -- there's no dialogue.
While Samurai Jack was known for spending long stretches of time each episode without dialogue, Primal is a purely visual storytelling experience as the series takes place before the concept of language was ever invented. It would be a risky move for any show, but particularly in the time Samurai Jack came out it was almost unprecedented to perform such a feat in popular animation. Now, with the flexibility and creative control his later career allows him, Tartakovsky commits to the technique full-force.
That's not the only restriction Tartakovsky is free from, either. Samurai Jack was still, for all its strengths, still a show targeted toward younger audiences. The titular character frequently sliced through armies of robots and monsters with nary a drop of blood seen, and it was not until the long-awaited final season that Jack was able to wield his sword more straightforwardly in the violent manner that was always confined to euphemism.
Primal, by contrast, is an immensely violent show. It uses the violence to highlight the savagery of the animalistic roots humanity grew from, and it does so with jaw-dropping proficiency. Without shying away from the savagery it depicts, the very first episode opens on Spear witnessing the death of his mate and two children. They are deaths that occur on-screen and juxtaposed against Spear's horrified visage, and because they serve as his core motivating force throughout the series the on-screen devastation sticks with the audience all the more.
The comparison between Samurai Jack and Primal could leave one to expect that Primal would be far more grounded in reality. Jack hopped across distant timelines and dealt with an insane variety of creatures, robots, and archetypes ripped fully formed from other genres while Primal's setting would surely be far more restricted. Except it isn't.
Tartakovsky uses the primordial setting to paint a world of magical monsters and high-concept fantasy. In one episode, Spear might be fleeing an army of giant vampire bats who serve an even more giant spider-god, and in another he may face a tribe of shamanistic apes overseeing death-matches fueled by a potion that turns its recipients into monsters. There is seemingly no idea Tartakovsky tells himself is too far out for the show, nor any other limitations creators typically suffer.
While the first season has yet to complete, it's a safe bet that Primal will only keep on showcasing a creative genius who continues to experiment and expand as he's allowed an ever-increasing space to do so. There are seemingly no heights that Tartakovsky cannot rise to, and while producing Samurai Jack would have been a fine enough laurel for anyone to rest on Tartakovsky is clearly far from being well-rested just yet.