Spoiler Level: High
This is the best Trans- formers TV show I've seen since the Beast era.
Now to be fair, I haven't seen all the shows since the Beast era. I am by no means a hardcore Transfan. I generally couldn't stand the G1 cartoon (sorry, Mike) although I tried to get into it many times because I loved The Transformers: The Movie and the G1 comics. I loved Beast Wars, enjoyed Beast Machines and some fansubs of Beast Wars II and Beast Wars Neo. I suffered through all of Robots in Disguise. I gave up on Armada fairly early so I didn't even bother with Energon, and tried out a fansub of Galaxy Force but found it boring so I didn't bother with Cybertron. And Animated looked like a watered-down version of the movies with character designs that really put me off, so I never gave it a chance.
But when I saw the previews of Prime my interest got piqued. Since my favorite has been Beast Wars, the return to CGI definitely made me willing to give it a chance. Hey, CGI is perfect for robots, because they're supposed to be blocky and move mechanically!
The "watered-down version of the movies" description might still apply here, as this is obviously a TV version of the movie universe; It's even produced by the movies' writers, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. The designs for Optimus Prime and Bumblebee are similar to the movie designs, and Bumblebee still doesn't talk. However it's only watered down in the sense that the Transformers aren't smashing through cities, although there's still lots of combat. In a lot of ways it feels stronger than the movies; the humans are a lot less annoying, the robots aren't all silver and/or black so I can actually tell them apart, and with it being a series they each get more screen time to be fleshed out as actual characters.
The voice acting is great; Peter Cullen is back as Optimus Prime. Frank Welker's Megatron never sounded better than here; his voice is lower, darker and more threatening. Jeffrey Combs, who's played about a gazillion different aliens on Star Trek, plays Ratchet and does a great job infusing Ratchet with a sense of weary frustration with Earth yet fierce loyalty to Optimus.
The kids are more tolerable than in most TF stories. I am not a big fan of humans being in Transformers. That's part of why I like the Beast era the most. In my opinion, humans just get in the way and force the Autobots to stay on the defensive. (The obvious exception being the army troops in the first Transformers film-- now those guys could hold their own.) This series totally drives that point home in Parts 3 & 4, when the kids decide to follow Bulkhead (who is an awesome character, by the way) into battle. Thankfully in the other parts they're mostly just helpers; the character Jack is even smart enough to try to stay out of the way. They're much more tolerable than Sam Witwicky,who I generally found to be selfish and unlikeable. Jack, Raf, and Miko may be intrusive at times, but they don't try to steal the show away from the robots. And Special Agent Fowler is much less slapstick than Agent Simmons while still being humorous. And he's got a big ol' gut hanging over his belt! I loved that.
And of course one of the key, crucial questions to any Transformers cartoon is: Do they have live ammo? These are robots, after all, so they should be able to blow the snot out of each other and repair minor damages, with major damage still being enough to kill them. And yes, they do that in this show! It shocked the hell out of me when one of the lead Autobots was brutally killed in the first episode. Then he's brought back to life in the next episode and I thought, "Oh, okay, they only killed him because it wouldn't be permanent." But wow was I wrong; he's brought back as a mindless berzerker, only to be killed again even more brutally, and this time for good. Yikes.
Now granted I'm not a big fan of zombies, and cyberzombies aren't much different, but even I have to be impressed with the hordes unleashed here. Hopefully the show will find other angles in the future, though; it works well for this story arc, but I imagine it would get old quick. Especially since I'm starting to get sick of seeing zombies in everything.
The musical score is bold and theatric, and sounded so familiar that I thought series composer Brian Tyler was using Steve Jablonsky's theme from the movies. Which he might be, but I realized the reason it sounded familiar to me was it sounds like Michael Giacchino's theme from Star Trek ('09, the script for which was also written by Kurtzman and Orci).
So it's good story telling, good animation, good voice acting. I'll be looking forward to the rest of the series in 2011.