Great television shows, more often than not, are products of a very specific time in the lives of the characters they feature, in the lives of the creators who tell their stories, and even in the lives of the audience and public at large who love them.
This is why so many of our recent TV revivals have been so unsatisfying. Bring back Rory Gilmore as a woman in her 30s, and behavior that was once charming is now insufferable. Relocate Mulder and Scully in a scarier real-life climate — and 14 years after Chris Carter last regularly wrote for television — and you get a “comedy” episode about suicide bombers.
Adult Swim’s revival of Samurai Jack, though, seems immune to the perils of age and time away, even as that winds up being a chief part of the new episodes.
An animated sci-fi epic about a time-displaced Japanese warrior battling robots and demons in the distant future, created by Genndy Tartakovsky, Jack ran for four award-winning, critically-acclaimed(*) seasons in the early ’00s. (All the vintage episodes are streaming on Hulu.) Episodes tended to get by on the bare minimum of dialogue (though Jack was and is voiced by Phil LaMarr), leaning heavily on Tartakovsky’s thick-lined, impressionist design sense and knack for staging intricate cartoon action spectacle. In 2004, it didn’t end so much as stop — the last episode involved Jack telling a Japanese folk tale to a baby — but I still encounter animation buffs and Eastern cinephiles who speak of the show in hushed tones.
(*) In the earliest planning stages of TV (THE BOOK), Matt Seitz warned me, “I’m going to find a way to get Samurai Jack into the top 100.” In the end, he decided he’d rather write about it — and Tartakovsky’s Star Wars: Clone Wars series — in our honorable mentions section. But if he’d tried arguing for its spot on the main list, I don’t know how hard I’d have fought him.
As a cartoon set in a bizarre future world, with minimalist dialogue and characterization, Jack should have been more protected by the ravages of time than many other series getting resurrections. (Tartakovsky is even able to work around the 2006 death of Mako, who played Jack’s demonic nemesis Aku, recasting him with voice actor Greg Baldwin — who has replaced Mako in a few other recent series like Avatar: The Last Airbender — in a way that would have been far more difficult in live-action.) And despite having not watched an episode in more than a decade and only vaguely remembering where last we left Jack and Aku, I thrilled to the site of those big chunky lines and the way Jack defied the laws of physics as he tore through Aku’s robots.
Yet Tartakovsky makes the passage of time into the main topic of the new episodes, particularly whenever the fighting stops long enough for Jack to catch a breath and maybe say a word or two. What has been 13 years for us has been 50 for him, but he hasn’t aged a day, and acutely feels the pain of his failure to both stop Aku and get back to his own time. That adds an extra layer of melancholy to what’s always been a weird series — the first new episode cilmaxes with Jack battling a robot that talks like Sammy Davis Jr. — and gives the whole thing the weight of one of those tales of an ancient sword-wielder (or gunslinger) rising up for one last fight, only this one still has the body and skills of his younger self.
Samurai Jack wasn’t a property I’d been dreaming of ever seeing again, but it’s emerged from its trip through time and space far better than most of the recent TV revivals.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org