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‘Primal’ Is Genndy Tartakovsky at his Best and Most Brutal

Primal is a brutal encapsulation of Genndy Tartakovsky’s greatest creations.

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Primal

Genndy Tartakovsky’s best work has always focused on self-discovery in the midst of hostile environments. The iconic Samurai Jack told a story about seeking to return home from a bizarre futuristic world, and even Hotel Transylvania and Dexter’s Lab were all about coming to terms with unique identities in strange, otherworldly surroundings. Primal is Tartakovsky’s latest work in this vein, having just debuted on Adult Swim. Taking place in a fantastical vision of prehistory – and without a single line of dialogue – it is certainly a far cry from his previous creations. Yet it is with this stripped-back nature that Primal cuts to the core of what it means to be human.

Primal is a brutal encapsulation of Genndy Tartakovsky’s greatest creations.

True to its name, Primal focuses on the most visceral of human emotions. Even within the first few minutes of “Fang and Spear,” the series’ debut episode, profound feelings like grief, rage, and fear abound. Yet there is not a line of dialogue throughout the show; after all, it takes place at least a few thousand years prior to the development of intelligent speech. Instead, these feelings are presented through its starkly expressive visuals.

Primal

The show begins when a caveman known only as Spear (Aaron LaPlante) returns home from the day’s hunt to find his entire family eaten alive by a band of colossal dinosaurs. Immediately Primal’s brutal world presents itself: this is a world in which humanity has yet to climb to the top of the food chain. Spear may be a human, but at this point in history, he is only one of many animals struggling for food and shelter.

Within these first few minutes of the show, a wide spectrum of emotions appears. At first, Spear is filled with raw fury and a fervent desire for vengeance for his family; then, in the aftermath of the struggle, he is overcome with grief, and by the end of the episode, he even learns compassion and companionship. He alternates between blind rage and delicate care for life itself; devoid of spoken dialogue, this visceral representation of differing reactions serve almost as a miniature spectrum of human emotion.

Although Primal pulls off an impressive feat with its wordless storytelling, it isn’t completely perfect. In some ways, it feels limited by its placement on Adult Swim. The show is neatly packaged into a 22-minute box, which leaves some sections feeling squeezed; for instance, much of Spear’s character development is packed into the first five minutes of the show, when the individual moments of his growth would have been more effective had they had the chance to breathe more.

Primal

Knowing that Tartakovsky is involved, it should come as no surprise that Primal is a visually striking production. Its primeval world bursts to life with vibrant patches of color, with watercolor sunshine pouring down on shadowy rain forests while dinosaurs fight one another with bursts of bright red blood spewing forth from their wounds. Colorful visuals are contrasted with thick, blotted black outlines, making for a painterly effect that contrasts well with the gruesome nature of the world. Like its story, Primal’s visuals presents a firm dichotomy between violence and beauty.

This presentation is further enhanced through Primal’s exemplary sound design. It takes place in a world of ethereal, unusual noises – the roaring of fantastical creatures, the grunts of preliterate humans, and the bustle of an environment teeming with unfamiliar life, all of which are exemplified through vivid and evocative audio. On top of this, the percussive and horns-focused soundtrack further cements the hunting, tribal attitude of the show.

Primal is a brutal encapsulation of Genndy Tartakovsky’s greatest creations. It has the artistry and action-packed sensibilities of his previous cartoons, but what makes it truly special is the way it tackles bare emotion at its most essential level. By going back to the dawn of humanity itself, Primal is a violent analysis of what human nature is really all about.

Campbell's a writer and English student at the University of Texas at Austin. An unabashed Nintendo nerd, the only thing that can tear him away from his Switch is the thought of all the dusty old books in the libraries on campus.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Mike Worby

    October 13, 2019 at 9:51 am

    This show fucking rules man.

    • Campbell Gill

      October 13, 2019 at 12:30 pm

      That it does…the final episode left me speechless.

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Watchmen Podcast: Breaking Down “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own”

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Watchmen Podcast If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own

With its fourth episode, titled “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” HBO’s Watchmen examines questions of legacy and inheritance but also leaves the viewers scratching their heads trying to figure out what the series is all about. There are countless jaw-dropping scenes in the fourth episode, but there are also scenes that have didn’t quite work for us. Needless to say, the episode left us somewhat disappointed this week. Tune in and find out why.

Our Watchmen podcast will see Simon Howell and an assortment of guests tackle the entire series (or at least the first season). In this fourth episode, Simon Howell, Kate Rennebohm and Randy Dankievitch, take a deep dive into “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” and note some of the more astonishing facts of the episode you might have missed.

And for those of you wondering, in order to keep things simple, we’ve decided to upload each episode to the same feed as our other podcast, Before the Internet.

Listen here on iTunes or listen here on Stitcher. 

You can also catch our show on Pocketcast and on Spotify, or simply listen via the player embedded below.

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Watchmen Season 1 Episode Four Review: “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own”

A thick metatextual layer coats an episode of enigmatic introductions and underwhelming mystery building.

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Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

Near the end of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” trillionaire Lady Trieu accuses Will Reeves of employing “passive-aggressive exposition” and tells him he’s being “too cute by a half-measure” teasing out his identity to his granddaughter. It is one of many meta moments in a Watchmen episode where Damon Lindelof’s anxieties and fears constantly bleed through the text of dystopian superheroes; and while that certainly makes for fascinating television to dissect and theorize about, it doesn’t exactly make for a neat, satisfying hour of television. In fact, much of it feels like its explicitly doubling down on its most esoteric qualities, drowning out much of its interesting character work and world building, with an ungodly amount of narrative winking and hand gesturing in the place of a coherent, driven plot.

Watchmen‘s density appears to be coming into conflict with its narrative momentum more often than it should, which could prove troublesome in its climactic moments.

It’s not necessarily bad television; but many of the bread crumbs it drops throughout the hour make “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” feel both bloated and empty through most of the episode. Even Lady Trieu, whose introduction is unsurprisingly strange and intriguing, falls victim to this by the end of the hour, becoming the author’s overt mouthpiece in perhaps the most strained exchange of the young series. After a fascinating introduction, where she convinces a couple to sell their house and land by bringing them a test tube baby (one she had made from their DNA), Trieu’s later scenes are a bit more grating, the farther they move away from defining her character, and closer to becoming a sounding board for self-critique.

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

Lady Trieu’s arc through “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is emblematic of the entire hour: rich subtext obfuscated by an unwieldy amount of foreshadowing and stalling. This is obviously by design – Will establishes we’re three days away from whatever event is coming, and Veidt’s timeline reveals his scenes are three years from the present – but instead of leaning on character and theme to pass the time, the fourth episode of Watchmen doubles down on objects nodding towards what’s to come. An object falling from the sky, a mention of a horseshow Veidt “doesn’t need yet,” the direct mention of nothing being able to take down the Milennium Clock, “save for a direct hit from a nuclear blast”; every object and line in “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is a nod towards what’s to come – which, in retrospect, may make this the most important episode of the series.

But in the present, it just makes the whole affair feel a bit clumsy in its deliberate, straightforward delivery; to borrow from the episode’s symbolism, we never see any of the acorns grow into trees in this hour. We learn facts like Looking Glass is a conspiracy theorist, and Trieu’s daughter is probably some kind of lab creation who has her mother’s memories of Vietnam, and Veidt pull babies out of the water to make his clone servants in a steampunk machine; all enthralling imagery, all stepped in some of the show’s deeper thematic material about identity and purpose – but it feels laborious, and hollow, in the isolated context of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own.”

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

At some point, all of this will mean something; even the vigilante who lubes himself up to slide through sewer grates will hold some significance in this world, even if it’s only a cheeky side note across this hour. I just wish I felt more emotional purpose to this episode: in those terms, most of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is just inert, a middle-chapter episode that makes no qualms about its position as the episode positioned between the series’ beginning, and the start of its climb to the season’s dramatic apex; but that honesty comes at the cost of everything feeling just a bit trite.

The most interesting parts of “If You Don’t Like My Story” end up being in the margins; details like Angela and Lady’s shared Vietnamese heritage (and language), Will’s fears about what’s to come, and Looking Glass’s questionable living quarters stand out among the episode’s always-lush aesthetics. Even more interesting are the metatextual connotations; Lindelof as “master and not the maker,” the cheeky episode titles and closing conversations, and the synchronicity between timelines, as the episode ends three days from whatever is about to happen on Earth, while Ozymandias’ escape is clearly nearing its own apex (and with each episode suggesting another year interned, suggests he’s three years away from his own release).

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

It all amounts to a collection of interesting moments, stranded in a forgettable episode unable to mark any important narrative shifts; it’s all intrigue and ominous language, muting the impact of Lady Trieu’s showy introduction. Piles of bloody clone bodies and Will’s pointed disappointment in “betraying” Angela makes for fascinating images and moments, but as a part of Watchmen‘s whole, feels a lot more weightless than what came before it, and what appears to be coming on the horizon.

It’s a small misstep, but an important one: Watchmen‘s density appears to be coming into conflict with its narrative momentum more often than it should, which could prove troublesome in its climactic moments. Tick tock, tick tock, I suppose – hopefully next week’s episode offers a bit more clarity and cohesion than what “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” has to offer.

Other thoughts/observations:

Who would’ve thought Watchmen would challenge Mom for the title of “most engaging, mature female lead characters on the same show”?

Lot to pull from the meaning of the episode’s title: it could hint to characters taking control of their own narratives (Ozymandias reframing his imprisonment as a challenge, Angela learning about her family’s history and grandfather’s mission, Laurie’s legacy running around “yahoos”in her past), or it is a middle finger to Lindelof’s critics. Or it is what Lindelof probably told himself every day that Alan Moore would tell him if they ever got to speak to each other.

Few scenes on TV are more disturbing than watching Veidt casually discarding infants around in the open water. Or making them into very nude adults in his steampunk magic machine.

“So you’re building the eighth wonder of the world?” “No, we’re building the first wonder of the new world.” THAT’S NOT OMINOUS OR ANYTHING.

Senator Keane clearly knows he shouldn’t be naming Angela while she’s in her Sister Night uniform… and yet he keeps doing it. Almost like he’s making a point about it… it is most certainly too clever, by at least a half-measure.

So if Ances-Tree was able to trace the “unknown” Will to his parents, why would the program think the whole family died in the fire? If Will died, he wouldn’t be a grandfather – and since her family tree shows no siblings for him, it would seem natural that he, in fact, did not die in the fire. Not a big thing, but it’s a point of logic that stuck out in the moment.

So either Lady Trieu is trying to kill Dr. Manhattan or create time travel? Those are my best two guesses, as if I have any clue what the fuck is actually going on here.

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‘Sesame Street’ at 50: A One-of-a-Kind Tradition

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Sesame Street, as of this weekend, has been on the air for 50 years. Like no other work of popular culture, with the possible exception of Pixar Animation Studios, the show has cracked the very difficult task of appealing to the sensibilities of both adults and children, with the same bit of entertainment. 

Between the Sesame Street 50th anniversary – occasioned this weekend with a somewhat underwhelming TV special– and the arrival of the new biopic of Mr. Rogers, this is a big month for nostalgia about beloved, long-running children’s entertainment of the past. 

An educational show that’s also entertaining, having created indelible characters human and Muppet alike, Sesame Street occupies a place unlike anything else America has ever produced. 

Many people experience Sesame Street exactly twice: When they first watch it as children, and then again, decades later when they watch it with their own children. This is due largely to the show’s style, underlying values and general sensibility being so timeless, but also because the show re-uses old material so often. It doesn’t hurt that, in the modern era, many of the best Sesame Street moments live on YouTube. 

At its best, the series’ scenes have the timing of the very best comedy sketches, such as “mystery box” bit with Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster: 

And of course, there’s also stuff to make you cry. Most notably, of course, the Mr. Hooper scene: 

And the famous Snuffy reveal from 1985: 

The 50th anniversary, of course, means that Sesame Street began in 1969, and yes, this show that nearly universally found its way into the homes all over the world was very much a creation of the counterculture- one of its most enduring, in fact.

Street Gang, Michael Davis’ 2008 book, is the definitive history of the show, depicting how Jim Henson, Joan Ganz Cooney and the rest of the original crew developed and sustained the show. There was also the 2015 documentary I Am Big Bird, in which Spinney told the stories of his years in the Big Bird suit, his sometimes contentious relationship with Henson, and the episode in which he was considered for a spot on the doomed Challenger space shuttle. 

And while Sesame Street has been much parodied, no one has ever done it better than the Broadway musical Avenue Q, which debuted in 2003. Featuring Muppet-like puppets and a Sesame Street-like setting, the show may have been uncommonly raunchy, but its underlying values of acceptance and friendship ultimately weren’t that different from those of its inspiration. 

'Sesame Street' at 50

While Sesame Street has endured for a half-century, its future is somewhat in flux. In 2016, the show’s first-run episodes moved from their longtime home of PBS to the premium channel HBO, although PBS still shows the second run, arriving there nine months after the first. 

This led to some hand-wringing back when it was first announced, although it’s pretty clear the show’s main target audience of preschoolers doesn’t know from first-run and second-run episodes,  the series always includes lots of vintage material even in its “new” episodes. Also, the new Sesame Street material that goes viral – most notably, its frequent kid-friendly TV parodies- always go up on YouTube immediately, along with so much of the classic stuff. And the HBO deal gave Children’s Television Workshop a cash infusion that allowed them to produce more episodes per season. 

Next year, another change is planned, per an announcement last month: The first-run Sesame Street episodes will debut not on HBO proper but rather on HBO Max, AT&T and Warner Media’s new streaming service that will launch next May. For those who care about seeing first-run episodes, this puts the new shows not only on a streaming service, but the most expensive one. 

'Sesame Street' at 50

On the bright side, the HBO Max deal includes streaming access to the entire 50 years of Sesame Street’s back catalog. Plus, the service is planning spin-offs of Sesame Street including, per The Verge, “a live-action late-night parody hosted by Elmo.”

However it’s consumed in the future, Sesame Street occupies a place that’s all by itself in the history of children’s entertainment, one enjoyed now by three generations of children, along with their parents.

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