The #1 Most Underrated Animated Series on TV Right Now
There’s nothing worse than underrated art. Typhoid. Typhoid is worse. But you know what’s second-worst directly behind typhoid? Gas leaks. Those are bad, too. Okay but behind gas leaks and maybe mad cow disease is underrated art. And this piece of art in question is criminally underrated. So what is it? Is it an anime? Nope. If you want underrated anime, check out this list. Is it Paper Girls? Okay well, yes. That show is underrated. But no, because that show isn’t animated. So wait … is it a Western cartoon????
Yes, it is. Surprisingly enough. Alright so maybe I’m being a philistine here but I’m not really a fan of a lot of Western animation. Don’t get me wrong, the kids’ shows are amazing: Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Over The Garden Wall, all bangers. But the adult shows … they’re kinda gross in my opinion. Yes I’m aware that Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty are “intelligent TV shows that reflect the dark post-modern sensibilities of” blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda I don’t care. Yes, they’re good shows. Yes, they’re intelligent. But my God they are cynical in way that makes me quit uncomfortable. A lot of western adult animation at best feels sitting on the couch at a party and getting sucked into a conversation with a really smart but completely insufferable person. Yes their ideas are radical and paradigm shifting. Yes the are unafraid to fathom the dark, complex, and morally ambiguous aspects of modern living. Yes they are worthy of recognition and praise for deconstructing story forms and presenting audiences with complicated antiheroes. But do they have to make me feel so bad all the time?
Maybe it’s just me, but the cynical, sardonic, and hyper-violent nature of a lot of western animation just feels … false. Suffering is an inescapable aspect of the human condition, but it’s presented as the entire human condition. Yes the world is dark. Yes the world is cruel. Yes the world is brutal and violent and awful but it’s not that way all the time. In fact, I’d argue that the world, in day to day, is pretty good most of the time. Kittens get adopted and people fall in love and sometimes when you drop your toast it lands jelly side up. But not in these shows. Everything is just kinda shitty all the time. The world is just a low grade ache. A stubbed toe. Sometimes it makes you laugh, but that’s only when something bad happens to someone else instead of you. Sometimes you cry, but God forbid there’s too much emotional catharsis to force any character to create positive change. Now listen, it’s okay to feel jaded, we all feel that way sometimes. And it’s okay to seek out art that legitimizes those feelings. But literally just one look at the twice a day miracle that is sunrise and sunset will tell you that there are still lovely things about the world. There are still reasons to get up each morning. There are still reasons to fight and fight hard. Which brings me to what I believe is the finest animated show in the west right now: Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal, which can be found on Adult Swim and HBO Max.
So remember when I was pooh-poohing hyper-violence? Well, here’s the thing: Primal is one of the most violent animated series that I have ever seen. Right up there with Devilman Crybaby. It’s downright horrific. But it’s justified. Why? Because Primal takes place at the dawn of time. The story focuses on an unnamed Neanderthal (called “Spear” by the writers for the weapon he carries) who is trying to survive in hellscape that is the prehistoric world. In the first episode alone we see him come home from a fishing trip to find his mate and children being devoured by dinosaurs. It is as heartbreaking and horrible as it sounds. He travels the world alone until he comes across a female Tyrannosaurus who is defending young from the same species of dinosaurs that killed Spear’s family. Empathetic to her plight, he helps the mother T-Rex (known as “Fang”) fend off the dinosaurs, and begins to bond with her and her adorable offspring. The good times are short lived however, as the pack leader of the killer dinosaurs returns and eats Fang’s children alive. Enraged by grief, Spear and Fang work together and succeed in killing the dinosaur (really violently, might I add). Left with nothing but each other, the pair set off into the world as a team in order to help one another survive.
Okay so bangin’ premise right? T-Rex and Caveman vs. The Prehistoric World. It’s a cocaine-addled Hollywood producer’s B-move wet dream yeah? It’s a popcorn flick. Mindless, violent fun. Right? In lesser hands, yes, it would have been. But Genndy Tartakovsky, the man who brought us the darkly beautiful Samurai Jack, would never settle for a B level story. Spear and Fang’s drama is treated with all the life or death seriousness of the prehistoric world itself. Each episode is shockingly violent. Prehistoric man and beast die hard, painful deaths. But unlike the gleefully meaningless carnival of violence that is Rick and Morty, each one of these deaths hurts. The violence of the show is scary. And it’s scary because it’s true. The wild animals of the planet know that Mother Nature is capable of unimaginable cruelty, something that human beings have been privileged enough to avoid due to advances in technology.
But while the weight of the world of Primal appears to be suffering, the show is never lets us forget that the brighter aspects of life such as love and beauty are never in short supply. As the series progresses, the bond between Spear and Fang deepens. They are a sort of prehistoric odd-couple. Due to their obvious differences, they often misunderstand each other (and it’s often hilarious when they do) but there is absolutely NOTHING more satisfying than watching Spear climb onto Fang’s back and charge at a foe. These characters are not necessarily willing to die for each other, but perhaps even truer to their savage natures, they are willing to survive for each other. And survive they do. The pair encounters a myriad of horrors including giant spiders, violent Space Odyssey-esque groups of ape-men, and of course, a metric fuckton of nature’s finest killing machines: dinosaurs.
While the series first begins as a “problem of the week” sort of show (i.e. how do we stop this one dinosaur from killing us?) the boundaries of the world expand at the end of the first season. In the ultimate episode of Season 1, Spear and Fang encounter a woman who possesses softer features that more closely resemble modern humans. This woman becomes the first canonically named character in the story, as is it is revealed that she can talk, though she speaks a language that the viewer does not understand. She introduces herself to Spear and Fang as Mira, and attempts to teach Spear about more advanced concepts such as cooking food and using more complex weapons and tools. As the story progresses, Mira is revealed to have once been enslaved by a Viking-like nation from across the sea, and is later recaptured by them.
And this is where the story gets really interesting. With the introduction of humans (and more advanced societies of humans) the bond between Spear and Fang is further put to the test. Spear is fundamentally mistrustful of other humans, but recognizes that he is a part of the same species. Likewise, Fang encounters another Tyrannosaurus Rex that puts strain on her relationship between herself and her human companions. The series smartly puts the pair into circumstances where their relationship to each other is tested at its core, as they are forced to choose between one another and the members of their own species. Nevertheless, Spear and Fang are able to reconcile their differences and come to a mutual understanding: they need each other. And while the series is not at all mushy-gushy, it is clear that Spear and Fang love each other. No matter how often they get on each other’s nerves. That love is becoming especially clear in current episodes, as Fang becomes pregnant by another member of her species and lays a trio of eggs, to the ecstatic delight of Spear and Mira. Spear defends Fang’s eggs as if they are his own, as his own tragic past allows him to understand that life is fragile, precious, and at the end of the day, worth living.
The show contains all the cerebral fun of science fiction romps such as Rick and Morty, but is able to maintain a powerful, beautiful emotional core that Western animation so often lacks. In a sense, Primal is a show that is the exact opposite of cynical. In a cynical world, horrible things have a possibility of happening, but the characters view them as the only things that happen. The savage world of Primal, horrible things are guaranteed to happen, but the certainty of their occurrence only makes the characters hope more against them. Life is so easily taken in world of Spear and Fang, but that only serves to make life more precious to those who live it. Every day is a miracle. Every moment of laughter, joy, and comfort is a gift from creation. In Spear’s eyes, every sunset means something, because each one may be the last sunset he ever sees.
Image credit: Cartoon Network Studios
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