‘Samurai Jack’ Is Back After 12 Years – and He’s Different

The animated star is back, but not how you remember him

“Samurai Jack” returned to TV this weekend after a 12-year break, and as fans expected, the new season is darker, grittier, harsher, and more insular than ever.

The cartoon – which ran for four seasons on Cartoon Network from 2001 to 2004 — was created by Genndy Tartakovsky and told the story of a samurai who, in his battle with the demon Aku, is thrust into a future where Aku rules. Since its premiere and over the years, the show has become a cult favorite, with Matt Zoller Seitz over at Vulture calling it a “masterwork,” and sites such as IGN and TV Guide naming it one of the greatest animated shows of all time.

The show was like nothing else on kids’ television at the time. It combined heavy, violent themes and dry humor, along with Akira Kurosawa-inspired storytelling. Tartakovsky often relied on visuals rather than dialogue and action, although all were spectacular. How the show balanced action, drama, and comedy can all be seen in how it portrayed Aku — who was simultaneously imposing and silly.

In four seasons, Jack never got back to his own time. So of course the newest episode picks up with Jack still stuck. He’s been rendered haggard by the 50 years that have passed within the story. His sword, which was the only weapon capable of defeating Aku, is missing — which is crucial. In this futuristic world filled with technology, advanced weapons and motorcycles, he was the one still using a sword.

This may seem dark, but the premiere was not without its comedy. When the villain, Scaramouche — a robot assassin who plays the flute — sees Jack, he reports to Aku that the warrior is no longer a threat. The fight between Scaramouche and Jack has its flair, with the former using what is essentially a tuning fork to cause explosions. Scaramouche is bright and colorful and mostly light-hearted, bringing “Samurai Jack” back to its roots in terms of tone.

The show was always about the creativity in how Tartakovsky and his team built each scene. The villains were like Scaramouche: inventive, unique, and crazy. Jack was the hero, but we never got a sense of what he was thinking. He was mostly a player in the story. Now that the show is focused on his inner thoughts, this represents a shift. It makes sense then that the show is on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s adult-themed programming block.

“He’s lost his way and he’s lost hope,” Tartakovsky told Rolling Stone. “And that’s one of the things that I’m really excited about the series, is that we can go this deep and really explore what Jack is feeling in this more existential way, where’s he’s trying to really justify his existence.”

Viewers found the changes to be stark, but positive. The A.V. Club gave the premiere an A-, saying it shows Jack at one of his lowest points mentally. Vulture maintains that the show’s unlike anything seen before.

“Samurai Jack” airs on Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. EST on Cartoon Network.