It seems difficult to explain why Primal is good without first supplying something of a state-of-the-union. Good, as compared to what? And of course, we’d be remiss not to take a perfectly good chance to fuss and complain. It’s the little things, after all.
Modern storytelling is awful, and it’s hard to decide how to allocate blame.
Is it the corporate production companies and their marketing focus-groups, forever tugging the leash of the mistreated artist? Perhaps it’s the younger generation of hack writers who are the real culprits–strung along as they are like malnourished greyhounds, chasing a lure around the track; ill-equipped to understand why their ideologically dulled claws can’t seem to scratch out any classics. Or does the fault rest with the slack-jawed crowd of ‘access media’ fools, contracted en-masse to astroturf positive sentiment for the whole ghoulish enterprise, online? Fortunately we are not businessmen, so for the moment we’ll confine our irritation just to the writers.
We poor, poor consumers are set-upon, constantly. Prodded with wooden dialogue, and propositioned with childish motivations. Swarmed, as if by mosquitoes, by inexplicably precocious characters designed by well-meaning, disaster-wreaking activists. We’re desperate to escape the godforsaken way-we-live-now; to loose the finer aspects of ourselves in something crafted with even a little more purpose than the cold, cosmopolitan suburbia into which we awaken every morning. But as far as the bleary eye can see, there are only reboots, remakes, and spinoffs of intellectual properties deemed worthwhile–by one corporate department or another–because they already have a preexisting audience. Adaptation after adaptation knocks on the bolted door, peering in between drawn blinds and through the mail slot, trying in vain to sell us a warped version of once-beloved source material; having first been vivisected before the horrified eyes of its jaded fanbase only to be reanimated, moments later, by bad-faith merchants and their political necromancy.
Thank us later, they say. Get rid of that dislike button. It’s for your sake, don’t you know. We do it for you. Oh dear, where has the stock price gone? What did we do to deserve this? How could you?
For these “new” writers, female characters are only as acceptable as they are masculine. Masculine characters are only as acceptable as they are deferent or villainous. We have clever characters written by writers who are not clever. We have authoritative characters written by writers who do not understand authority. Warriors, written by writers who style themselves pacifists. Kings, written by Jacobins. Affable characters, written by people who are themselves as unlikable as a single shoe.
Heroes, written by martyrs.
And yet there are still those rare Romans–stealing through the long shadows cast by comment sections brimming with robots; shadowy sorts, no longer posting in subreddits bursting at the seams with sponsored content and charlatan moderators. Unsubscribers, from streams that read more ad-reels than cable television. Lurkers in defunct forums, where the only page left that has any traffic is “off-topic.” There are still those of us who have long since fallen quiet, but, who remain sick-to-death of being forced to listen to Nero croon like a fat, dying cat, and feign rapt attention while he abuses that poor lyre. The prospect of having to overhear dolts online saying it wasn’t so bad, afterward, exhausts us. Bored to tears, pinching our noses, shaking our heads at each other, we wonder where all the soul went.
But where the soul went is a different question, and we still don’t want to talk about business.
In this numbed and dumbed marketplace, however, something strange occasionally happens. Once in a blue moon, a friar or a traveling mage appears in the square. He has with him a wagon full of things you can hardly pronounce, and his potions actually work. His spells are simple and effective. His furnace makes more than just smoke. When he snaps his fingers, a spark leaps into his pipe, and when he opens his mouth, out comes a captivating story–one he thought up on the road. Then, just as soon as he came, he’s gone.
Genndy Tartakovsky is just such a traveler, and Primal is just such a tall tale.
Reviews that read like laundry lists of synonyms for “We liked it” tend to irritate us, so, suffice it all to say, we liked Primal. Primal is good. Now, rather than restate it a dozen times, we’ll give you sense of how Primal comports itself and you can leave us to frown and mutter amongst ourselves.
Primal has no dialogue.
Where other shows would market a choice like that as a gimmick, Tartakovsky wields it like a rule–against which to measure the quality of the visual composition. Tartakovsky asks, is it too much; is it enough? Will it work? Does this image speak for itself, or does someone else have to come by and put words in its mouth? In one sense, on principle, it’s the simplest test of the visual medium. That is to say, it’s not an aesthetic choice. It’s a methodological one; bottom-up, not top-down.
Executives can stare listlessly into the empty sky until the end of days, wondering just what exactly it is that produces lightning in a bottle, and the sad irony is that it’s not particularly complicated. The freedom to work forward from a set of principles, as opposed to working backward from a set of checkboxes furnished by that pesky focus-group, is a state of affairs that can easily be supplied by someone with a seven-dollar latte and a bluetooth earpiece as the definition of “Risk.”
Authenticity, what could such a strange arrangement of letters possibly mean? Quick, someone bring me a data table, I’ll need to measure this success against something more… tangible…
Why is Primal good? It’s good because the people who knew how to make something good were free to do so.
If you insist, take for example those few characters who use magic. They don’t lay out the rules and regulations–as if all magic has to be either scientific (how kitschy), or waved-away. It’s not clear how the druid does his conjuring. It’s not always so clear what sacrifice has to be made in order to create an effect. The result is that the viewer is frequently as fearful and mystified as are Primal’s protagonists–watching those weird villains do their weird work. But, such an attitude produces an issue that most young writers can’t seem to contend with: A lack of understanding creates a lack of stakes, and therefore, fosters a lack of investment. What to do?
Tartakovsky has the simple solution. The witch and the shaman are undone, not by another unintelligible magical plot device–dreamt up by an overzealous art department–but rather, by the flaws we see them exhibit in using their magic to begin with. That’s all it takes: A focus on the characters; on the humane aspects of the story. The magic remains mystifying, the stakes don’t disappear, and we trust the writers to know what they’re doing behind the curtains at Oz. The show goes on.
We’ll save you more specifics. Primal is good. We liked Primal. We don’t like anything. Season 2 begins this weekend. Hopefully the ledger-keepers continue to stay out of Tartakovsky’s way, and hopefully he doesn’t inexplicably botch something like he botched the spirit of Bushido in the Samurai Jack finale.
Statler and Waldorf