For those who can get past its one intrusive tie to reality, Jim Mickle’s compelling adaptation of Jeff Lemire’s comic book series creates a comforting escapist daydream.
Much of the early concern about a show like “Sweet Tooth,” a fantasy adventure based on existing IP that aims for all four quadrants while nominally acting as a kids’ programme, is that it will either be saccharinely sweet or embarrassingly lopsided in its attempt to please too many audiences. Kids won’t watch a show that’s too violent (and won’t watch one that’s too complicated), while parents can’t stand anything that makes them cry so hard that their eyes roll out of their heads. (Actually, they can’t.)
If that sounds like a lot, well, sometimes it is — humanity is nearly wiped out by a viral pandemic called The Sick, for instance — but don’t worry
Thankfully, and perhaps against all odds, “Sweet Tooth” threads the needle. (Or do you want to thread the floss?) The eight-part Netflix series, based on Jeff Lemire’s DC comic books and adapted by Jim Mickle (co-writer, director, and executive producer), follows a “hybrid deer-boy” (their words) who travels across a post-apocalyptic America in search of his mother, alongside a former pro football star whose past sins are far darker than helmet-to-helmet penalties and a young gimp.
“Some stories begin at the beginning… ours begins right here.” That phrase comes from James Brolin, the series’ unseen narrator, and it, like so many of his other gargling chestnuts, never quite makes sense. It simply sounds pleasant, which is sufficient. Two unrelated events occur at the same moment in the future, at an indeterminate time: First, the world is swept by a viral pandemic. When a patient comes in with flu-like symptoms and a nagging twitch in her pinkie finger, Dr. Aditya Singh (played by an exceptional Adeel Akhtar) is the first to experience its devastating repercussions.
He sends her home with antibiotics, expecting it to go away like a typical cold, only to be surprised when she returns with increased symptoms. Hospitals grow overburdened, people become increasingly desperate, and Dr. Singh must flee his suburban area with his diseased wife, Rani (Aliza Vellani), or risk the government taking her away from him.
All of this happens in a six-minute montage, and if it sounds like watching a year’s worth of your worst nightmares come to reality, it’s because it is. However, because “Sweet Tooth” wasn’t created to provide commentary on COVID-19 (its origins are a decade old), the second simultaneous event, which takes place during the same six-minute intro, is all the more important. Hybrid babies begin to appear out of nowhere and with no reason. These natural oddities, which are part human and part animal, are often regarded with terror and contempt, even by the unsuspecting parents who give birth to them. This hostility isn’t motivated by accusations of bestiality — this is a children’s programme! — but rather by the fact that when the world is falling apart, anything different is thrown in with the tragedy.
Characters frequently claim throughout “Sweet Tooth,” which takes place mostly 10 years after The Sick begins, that the hybrids did not cause the disease; that is only a terrible association made by a fearful, uneducated public. Fortunately for Gus, who was born with slowly developing antlers and fawn-like ears, his “pubba” whisks him out to the woods as soon as the chaos begins (in another great dramatic performance by Will Forte). He raises his hybrid child there, teaching him to fend for himself, respect the Earth, and consume maple syrup made from tree sap. But, as is often the case when people go to the woods, the real world eventually finds them, and Gus is off on a solo adventure.
Gus’ trip through lush, brightly saturated animals and chaotic new villages is broken up by storylines you know will connect with the A-plot by season’s conclusion, joined by Tommy “Jep” Jepperd (an charming Nonso Anozie) and, later, a girl named Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen). Dr. Singh (Neil Sandilands), the leader of The Last Men, an army out to exterminate and experiment on hybrids, who they blame for The Sick, is still toiling away to save his wife; Amy (Dania Ramirez), a former therapist who finds renewed vigour for life when she’s forced to fend for herself; and General Steven Abbott (Neil Sandilands), the leader of The Last Men, an army out to exterminate and experiment on hybrid
While the show never buckles under the weight of its steadily growing characters — the fast storytelling results in only two episodes lasting more than 50 minutes and two more lasting less than 40 – “Sweet Tooth” has a purposeful simplicity. Every character’s primary goal stems from a desire to bring their family together. Gus (nicknamed Sweet Tooth because of his sugar addiction) is looking for his long-lost mother; Jep is grieving the loss of his wife and daughter; Dr. Singh’s main worry is the health of his wife; Amy is an orphan who despises adults.
Each episode’s new setting also provides a broad kind of wish fulfilment, as children can live vicariously in an amusement park (without their parents), and adults can live alone in the woods (perhaps in an abandoned but adorable cottage, or perhaps in a plush national park’s visitors centre on the side of a mountain). Teenagers, on the other hand, are spoon-fed the day’s message: previous generations were awful, they messed up the world, and their offspring will do better because they are better.
Because of its obvious appeal to the younger demographic, “Sweet Tooth” can come across as narrow-minded, like a gorgeous doll that can speak in whole phrases, but it’s all about the significance of family. Even still, there’s a reason Steven Spielberg has had such success portraying stories about parents and children reuniting: it works. Because of the series’ superb writing, world-building, and character development, it’s easy to turn off your head and enjoy the experience (that is, if you can get past The Sick). Strong performances also assist, and with so many key fundamental ingredients in place, it’s much simpler for a lighthearted fantasy adventure series to fly by. Although “Sweet Tooth” does not serve a full meal, a decent piece of chocolate is sometimes all that is required.