Adult Swim's caveman-dinosaur thriller bombs the fantasy genre back to the Stone Age.
Credit: Adult Swim

The undead dinosaur chokes out a blood waterfall while skin pours off its rotting cheek. Boulder-sized maggots with sharp slicing backbones swarm out of a dark cavern, and they are hungry. A man scalds loud over a sacrificial campfire while antler-headed crones sing unholy welcome to their faceless god. This is Primal, so the god rides a pterodactyl.

Yes: A show about a caveman and his pet Tyrannosaur, or a Tyrannosaur and her pet caveman. The Adult Swim show (season 1 resumes Sunday at 11:30 p.m.) is a prehistoric adventure in every sense. The setting is an unlikely eon between the Cretaceous and the Paleolithic, a just-right moment for human and dinosaur to foot-sled together down rocky cliffs while they narrowly escape whatever huge predator is hunting them today. And the brilliant animated series’ unfiltered imagination harkens back to an earlier era of fantasy. Wordless, exposition-free, shorn of any readily definable world-building “rules,” it cuts to visceral cores of terror and awe. Witness decades of genre evolution bombed back to the Stone Age.

The caveman is preverbal, with grunts memorably voiced by Aaron LaPlante. His limbs are as big as tree trunks. His face looks cut from a granite statue of Charles Bronson, which makes the frequent ruh-roh close-ups on his scared cartoon eyes even funnier. The show premiered last year with one of the most brutal pilots I’ve ever seen. Our hero — the credits call him “Spear” — had to watch his whole family get eaten alive. He met a green Tyrannosaur — “Fang” — and then her cute widdle baby Rexes also got devoured. Yet Primal is so much more than a sadistic Land Before Time. Creator Genndy Tartakovsky fully commits to the hardcore-action storytelling, but he brings a patient naturalism to the purposefully outlandish material. Man and beast are constantly stopping to catch their breath or share a fresh-kill dinner.

The first five episodes aired in 2019 (and are currently streaming on HBO Max). The plots were never what you’d call realistic, but they initially leaned toward paleontological pulp: Snakes and flash-floods, woolly mammoths and saber-wolves, “snow” as a major nemesis. Then came the mega-bats in a skyscraper-high roost, and the ape-men slurped mystic Precambrian elixirs to get swoll for arena duels. Sunday’s midseason premiere picks up in the aftermath of that goredown, and strips the mission down to bare life tasks: Food, water, how to move a wounded dinosaur, how to tend to that wounded dinosaur when crimson-eyed hyenas start flocking outside.

Tartakovsky is a true original in the animation field. He's best known for Samurai Jack, a techno-magical swordpunk odyssey. Describing Jack’s universe would take all day: Seussian rocketships, ancient darkwizards, barfights at the alien discotheque, talking British dogs, strict adherence to Bushido, satiric explosions of Orwellian advertising, cyber-hordes of giant beetle drones — and that’s just the series premiere!

The mainstream’s just now catching up to that kind of toybox mentality. It’s a statement of purpose, I think, that Primal is so completely Jack’s opposite. Tartakovsky has declared homage to Robert E. Howard’s Conan mythos and artist Frank Frazetta’s ultraviolent butt-muscle fireglow illustrations. Those two icons aren’t as sacred as they used to be, and it’s notable how Primal blends their unrepentant blood-and-bone masculinity with dreamier tones of wonder and sorrow.

One of the "new" batch of five episodes actually had a surprise airing back on April Fool’s Day, possibly because “murderous plague rips through a population of unwitting sauropods” was an unusually topical plotline for spring 2020. But before the proto-pandemic horror ramps up, the adventure begins with a sweetly restrained prologue, leisurely observing a herd of planteaters enjoying an afternoon leaf munch. Two of the dinos lovingly wrap their long necks around each other. The serene moments evoke their own form of tension. Violence erupts whenever things are too lovely.

I thought the episodes last year were pretty much perfect, every half-hour a fearsome feat of unlikely survival. The music by Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom wraps beat-of-the-heart percussion around inhuman techno, the right sound for exponentially increasing horror. Tartakovsky’s working with his Samurai Jack art director, Scott Wills, and they’ve finessed a visual style encompassing painterly purple jungle dawns and knockabout anime rumbles. The upcoming episodes hit new highs and suffer occasional repetitions (including two consecutive climactic fire-deaths).

For an Adult Swim fiend like me, Primal impressively discovers new realms of outright weirdness. I mentioned the god-thing riding a pterodactyl, but wait till you see what that creature does to human sacrifice. There’s a classical quality to the storytelling, too, more straightforward than the network’s usual ten-layers-of-meta deconstruction. The lack of dialogue means the central emotions have to be, well, primal: Lost love, desperate companionship, vengeful rage, the fading memory of happiness, a perpetual low-level fear which is really the ultimate fear. Spear and Fang could be a silent film buddy pair, with the dinosaur occasionally playing the eye-rolling straight man. A couple of these new outings lack the pure heavy metal kick of last year’s episodes, but they all maintain a central freaky sensibility. Our heroes only barely glimpse the hidden truths of the monsters hunting them, so the tone is more mystery than mythology, a rare vibe at a time when too many genre stories feel overly diagrammed and explain-y.

The finale promises a more expansive saga in the already-ordered second season. Something — or someone — is out there, unlike anything Spear and Fang have seen before. You sense that Tartakovsky is just getting started. It’s a good time to get lost in Primal’s world. A-

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