Jim Mickle’s captivating adaptation of Jeff Lemire’s comic book series offers a warm escape fantasy for those who can move beyond his only intrusive connection to reality.
Much of the early concern around a show like “Sweet Tooth” – a fantasy adventure based on existing intellectual property that targets all four quadrants while masquerading as a children’s show – is that it will be either sweet to the touch. point of saccharin, or awkwardly unbalanced trying to appeal to too many audiences. Kids can’t watch a show that’s too violent (and they won’t watch a show that’s too complicated), while parents usually can’t stand anything that pulls on the sensitive cords so hard that their eyes pop out of their heads. (Well they can’t handle it when it’s live.)
Fortunately, and somewhat in spite of himself, “Sweet Tooth” manages to thread the needle. (Or floss?) Based on the DC comics by Jeff Lemire and adapted by Jim Mickle from “Hap & Leonard” (who is co-writer, director and executive producer), the eight-part Netflix series follows a ” deer-boy hybrid “(their words) roaming post-apocalyptic America in search of his mother, alongside a former professional football star whose past sins are far darker than helmet-to-helmet penalties and a young girl who launched an army of animal-aspiring hybrids.
If that sounds like a lot, well, sometimes it is – humanity is nearly wiped out by a viral pandemic called The Sick, for example – but don’t worry. On paper, “Sweet Tooth” looks as odd and different as some of the CGI hybrid babies (prosthetics all the way), but it should sound familiar (mainly heartwarming) to anyone older than the stag boy named. Gus (Christian Convery). After all, much like Gus himself, he’s structurally designed to connect with kids.
“Some stories start at the beginning… our story starts here. This introduction comes from James Brolin, the show’s unseen narrator, and like so many other of his gargling chestnuts, the line has never really logic. It just sounds good, which turns out to be pretty good. At some unspecified future time, two disconnected events occur at the same time: First, a viral epidemic is sweeping the world. Dr Aditya Singh (played by an excellent Adeel Akhtar) is the first to witness its deadly effects, when a patient arrives with flu-like symptoms and a throbbing twitch in his pinky finger. Thinking it will go away like the common cold, he sends her home with antibiotics, only to be pissed off by her quick return with worsening symptoms. Soon hospitals are overwhelmed, people become more and more desperate, and Dr Singh has to escape his suburban neighborhood with his infected wife, Rani (Aliza Vellani), or risk having her kidnapped by the government.
Courtesy of Netflix
It all takes place in a quick six-minute edit, and if it feels a little too close to watching a year of your worst fears come to life, that’s because it is. But “Sweet Tooth” was not made to comment on COVID-19 (its origins are too old by a decade), making the second event simultaneous, also taking place on the six-minute intro, all the more more critical. Suddenly and without explanation, hybrid babies begin to be born. Part human and part animal, these natural anomalies are widely viewed with fear and disgust, even by the innocent parents who bring them into the world. Such hatred is not motivated by accusations of bestiality – this is a children’s show! – but because when the world collapses, everything that is different ends up in disaster.
Throughout “Sweet Tooth,” which mostly takes place 10 years after The Sick started, the characters repeatedly state that the hybrids did not cause the disease; it’s just a bad association made by a frightened and uninformed population. Luckily for Gus, who was born with steadily growing antlers and fawn ears, his “pubba” (in another impressive dramatic performance by Will Forte) takes him into the woods as soon as the chaos begins. There, he raises his hybrid child to fend for himself, respect the Earth and drink maple syrup, which they make together from the sap of trees. But, as it tends to happen when people run away into the forest, the real world eventually finds them, and Gus is sent on a solo adventure to find his mother.
Joined by Tommy “Jep” Jepperd (an endearing Nonso Anozie) and later a girl named Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen), Gus’ journey through lush and brilliantly saturated wildlife and random new communities is interrupted by stories with which you know how to connect plot A by the end of the season. There is Dr. Singh, who is still working to save his wife; Amy (Dania Ramirez), a former therapist who finds renewed vigor for life when forced to fend for herself; and General Steven Abbott (Neil Sandilands), leader of The Last Men, an army that seeks to exterminate and experiment on hybrids, which they accuse of Sick.
Kirsty Griffin / Netflix
While the series never cedes under the weight of its ever-expanding cast – the quick storytelling only results in two episodes over 50 minutes and two under 40 – a calculated oversimplification hangs over “Sweet Tooth.” The main motivation for each character is rooted in a desire to unify their family. Gus (nicknamed Sweet Tooth due to his love of candy) tries to find his long-lost mother; Jep struggles to overcome the loss of his wife and daughter; Dr Singh’s only concern is his wife’s health; Amy is an orphan and hates adults because of it.
The new setting in each episode also provides a broad type of wish fulfillment, as children live vicariously in an amusement park (without parents) and adults can embrace the dream of living alone in the woods (perhaps in an abandoned but adorable chalet, perhaps in the visitor center of a lavish mountainside national park). Teens, meanwhile, are spooning out the message of the day: older generations are bad, they messed up, and their kids will do better mainly because they are better.
Such an obvious restoration to younger demos can make “Sweet Tooth” feel a bit narrow-minded, like a beautiful doll who can speak in full sentences, but they all speak of the importance of family. Still, there’s a reason Steven Spielberg has been so successful telling stories of parents and kids getting together: people eat this shit. The series’ efficient storytelling, world building, and character work make it easy to turn your brain off and enjoy the adventure (i.e. if you can get past The Sick). Strong performance helps too, and with so many essential ingredients working well, it’s a lot easier for a great little streak of fantasy adventure to go smoothly. “Sweet Tooth” might not offer a complete meal, but sometimes all you need is a good piece of chocolate.
Season 1 of “Sweet Tooth” is available for full streaming on Netflix.