‘Sweet Tooth’ Tells a Fantastic Fable Wrapped in a Relevant Story
Netflix’s “Sweet Tooth” brings something strange and heartfelt to the ongoing slew of apocalyptic stories hitting the big and small screens. Taken from a comic book series by Jeff Lemire, the series gains a greater relevance for obvious reasons. Its world is beset by a virus and major changes are forcing civilization to figure out how to keep going forward. This may sound dark and cataclysmic, and some of it is. But it is imagined more as a fable that younger viewers will particularly enjoy, while still giving them ideas about how to grapple with a world turned upside down. The protagonist is a boy with deer horns, yet it’s as charming as any fairy tale.
The show opens with images that look like a hybrid of our most recent nightmares and classic sci-fi destruction out of something like Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead.” Riots and social chaos are breaking out as a deadly virus begins to spread. At the same time, a new species of human/animal hybrids have started to be born. Cute and fuzzy, they nonetheless inspire much discrimination and wrath. One of these hybrids is Gus (Christian Convery), who has deer antlers and ears, along with other features, and has been hidden in the woods by his father (Will Forte). Isolated from the world, Gus has little idea of how it works beyond essential survival tools. His father is aware that out there, hybrids are being hunted down and killed, others are used for experiments. A tragic incident kills the father and Gus is left alone. While scavenging through items in their home, Gus finds a photo of a woman who appears to be his mother. His only clue for her whereabouts is that she is in Colorado. Beginning his journey, Gus soon comes across Tommy (Nonso Anozie), an armed former soldier of fortune who might be his best hope to survive.
“Sweet Tooth” can be compared in many ways to strong YA fiction. It’s a complete fantasy from a kid’s point of view, but uses its magical elements to explore urgent, mature themes. Showrunner Jim Mickle borrows in tone and structure from everyone like Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, making this an exciting adventure story with swelling music. Visually it’s one of Netflix’s best-looking shows this year, with cinematic photography and picturesque settings. By keeping a lot of the action in the woods, there’s also a fairy tale aspect to the narrative. “Sweet Tooth” is an apocalyptic fable about growing up, with Gus as the child who goes through the double crucible of learning he is different, while having to suddenly fend for himself in a hostile environment. There’s a gentle spirit in the first chapter, even after the scenes reminiscent of “The Stand,” as we see Gus and his father living together alone in the forest, learning to boil tree sap into syrup. Christian Convery makes Gus come alive in these scenes with such warmth and innocence that we genuinely worry for him once hybrid hunters appear, forcing father and son to flee.
The story then becomes a parental saga of a different kind. Gus’s father dies, but it is the enigmatic, gigantic Tommy who is forced by circumstance to become the hybrid’s guardian. Their journey becomes a lighter, though no less thrilling, take on the classic dystopian trek, where characters must wander through what’s left of civilization. “Sweet Tooth” enrichens the experience by building a wider, engaging world of other individual stories that are just as meaningful. In the city there’s Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar), who lives with his wife Rani (Aliza Vellani). Rani is currently infected with the plot’s threatening virus and takes certain medicinal shots to keep it at bay. But when the doctor who provides the Singhs with the medicine faces a deadly illness, Aditya is revealed a scientific secret that could help his wife, but poses a brutal moral conundrum. In “Sweet Tooth” there’s indeed much sweetness, but also serious dilemmas for characters to face. In another great dystopian tradition, the series also makes edgy, at times satirical commentary relevant to reality. Aditya and Rani need to keep her illness secret, because if it gets out then their suburban neighbors have disturbing ways of purging the community. Another character like Aimee (Dania Ramirez) has established a shelter for hybrids fleeing persecution. These moments have images that powerfully mirror our own, ongoing debates about refugees and migrants.
“Sweet Tooth” packs plenty of action stylishly filmed with an epic scope. Its best action sequences are the apocalyptic survivalist ones, where Tommy and Gus have to maneuver around rampaging hunters or would-be warlords in the forest. Nonso Anozie gets to display his talent for both drama and rugged physicality. He’s one of those towering actors who could easily be cast to just be an action tool, but his character has layers and a real backstory involving a group of hybrid hunters, The Last Men. As he grows closer to Gus it becomes harder to grapple with his past. A family that shelters them at an abandoned shop in the forest nearly recognizes Tommy, and Anozie perfectly evokes the tension of someone who is changing inside, but must reckon with what he was before. If “Sweet Tooth” were only interested in its excellent visual effects (the hybrids could have looked silly, but don’t) or quick entertainment, it would not have amounted to much. But it’s an excellent fantasy about facing a world suddenly changing in ways where one catastrophe impacts every facet of life. It will hit harder now, when many of us feel that’s precisely what we’ve just been through for the last year.
“Sweet Tooth” season one begins streaming June 4 on Netflix.