Primal is a dark, sinewy animated series that pairs a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal named Spear with an orthodontically challenged T rex called Fang. Violent and bloody, Primal is probably not for kids – but there is far more depth and intelligence to the deceptively simple concept of a caveman and a dinosaur teaming up to fight the world.
Primal creator and animation auteur Genndy Tartakovsky has a distinctive style and flair for storytelling that has seen him create some of the most memorable US cartoons of recent years, including Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack and the original (and best) Star Wars: Clone Wars series. But with Primal he has outdone himself.
Although there are threads of connective story tissue running throughout Primal’s 10-episode first season, the show is largely episodic, which is gloriously refreshing in an era of binge watching where it feels like every show is thinking several steps ahead. Primal is living in the moment and is all the better for it.
There is little to no dialogue in Primal; even when characters have capacity for speech, there is rarely a shared language between them. So everything we need to know must be conveyed through simple gestures, cinematic visuals and kinetic action.
But for all of Primal’s outwardly basic set up, it hides a thoughtful brain up top, unafraid to take us to unexpected places. Spear and Fang’s bond is born from a shared grief. Both see their family destroyed in the opening episode and they come together with the knowledge that their pain is understood, the foundation of their friendship unbreakable.
The show can really tug at your heartstrings, whether it be the melancholy respect shown to a herd of woolly mammoths in the episode A Cold Death, or the crushingly sad Coven of the Damned, which delivers a surprising and tender examination of child death. It does this all the while a coven of witches are riding around on pterodactyls and teleporting about the space-time continuum.
There’s more than enough prehistoric genre fun to put a big smile on your face as Spear and Fang clobber giant bats, snakes and spiders, dismember glowing-eyed hominids and fight giant gorillas in gladiatorial combat. The superbly named episode Plague of Madness sees our heroes pursued across lava flats by an infection-crazed, pustulated brachiosaur. Imagine Jurassic Park directed by Italian gore maestro Lucio Fulci and you’re somewhere in the right ballpark.
Primal’s second season was received favourably, but it lacks the first’s simplicity and purity of storytelling. Season two is unquestionably still very good and well worth your time, but it undertakes a narrative that spans 10 episodes and stretches the boundaries of an idea that could have worked better in a smaller scope.
But season two doesn’t muck about and aims high in terms of both narrative and character development. Primal sketches the lines of morality so faintly that, in one particular episode, The Red Mist, concepts of good or bad become completely meaningless, leaving us with only empty violence and ethical ambiguity. Primal draws us in with its Neanderthal thrills but we stay for the unexpected humanity. At its faultless best, cavemen smash and dinosaurs bite – but they also make us feel things.
Primal is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here
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