The New Serialized Samurai Jack Is the Best Revival on TV
Samurai Jack, which ran for four seasons in the early 2000s under the tutelage of animator Genndy Tartakovsky, was always dark. After a duel with the demonic entity Aku in the premiere, Jack was sent through a time portal into the future where Aku had taken complete control of the planet, turning Earth into a wasteland just as eccentric and cruel as Aku himself. Then Jack, armed with nothing but his magic sword, had two goals: Fight injustice wherever he could, and get back to the past.
And yet, after four seasons, Jack never made it back—and over time, his heroic journey turned into a tragedy. Would he ever return to the past? Could he ever defeat Aku? Samurai Jack didn’t answer those questions. But when this year’s revival began airing on Adult Swim in March, it quickly became clear how seriously the fifth (and likely final) season of of the show was going to be about addressing them—and how in doing so it was going to become one of the best revivals on television.
When viewers encounter the hero of Samurai Jack for the first time in the new reboot, he seems different. He’s clad in futuristic armor, shooting guns atop a motorcycle. His sword is missing. He’s wearing a mask, and when it’s removed his once-youthful face is covered by a beard almost as wild as the new glint in his eyes. He’s still a good guy, mind you, and he’s still fighting the hordes of Aku. But it’s gotten to him. He’s on the brink of snapping—or worse. To explore that suffering, and to follow Jack as he struggles to find his way out of it, the new Samurai Jack does something the show has never done before: tell one season-long story.
During its initial run, Samurai Jack was an episodic show about a wandering samurai in a foreign land, blending Kurosawa pastiche with Tartakosvky’s endlessly varying interests. Some episodes were moody fantasy, others were outlandish sci-fi. The style and tone could dance between any number of ideas and influences, from introducing Jack to a lifelong friend in the form of a swordsman from future Scotland to a full-episode riff on Frank Miller’s 300. By moving away from that structure in favor of one serialized story told over 10 episodes, Samurai Jack is able to achieve something different, reframing itself in a manner that feels perfectly at home in the story-obsessed TV landscape of 2017. Basically, it’s Fargo—but for Adult Swim.
The shift to long-form storytelling allows Tartakovsky to go deeper into his favorite influences and ideas, all the while taking a closer look at the psychology of a hero who has with occasional exceptions been a quiet cypher. It lets Jack’s creator utilize all his best tricks—strange, angular designs and wildly imaginative fantasyscapes, kinetic and visually lush fight scenes, and a cinematic language characterized by a devotion to Miller’s style of dense minimalism and the slow, lingering gazes of 1970s film auteurs. But thanks to the show’s new story structure, these moments have newfound emotional resonance. New Samurai Jack is about fighting through moral exhaustion, about the toll time can take on hope and vision. And using all the leeway granted by its late-night timeslot, it can also dive into Jack’s despair.
By moving away from an episodic structure in favor of one long story told over a period of 10 episodes, Samurai Jack is able to achieve something different, reframing its core ideas in a manner that feels perfectly at home in the story-obsessed media landscape of 2017.
Again, Samurai Jack is simple. Jack has two goals and only one real enemy. By zeroing-in on that simplicity and testing it in the crucible of longform storytelling, Tartakovsky and his fellow creators have managed to make excellent television that does justice to its predecessor. As the series wraps up, now is the perfect time to tune in. Samurai Jack has always been excellent, but now, more than ever, it’s tempered its hero’s quest to get back to the past with a renewed hope for the future.