Season 1 of “Sweet Tooth” is available for streaming now on Netflix.
Back in 2009 Eisner and Harvey Award nominated writer and artist Jeff Lemire started work on his acclaimed Vertigo comic book Sweet Tooth. The unusual mixture of gritty postapocalyptic adventure and anthropomorphic animal fable ran for 40 issues and led to Lemire tackling a number of mainstream DC/Marvel titles. Now Netflix has adapted Lemire’s story into an eight-part, live-action limited series. The result is a mixture of familiar end-of-the-world action, prescient pandemic themes and, well, furries.
The show was developed by and frequently written/directed by indie filmmaker Jim Mickle. Mickle knows his way around an apocalypse, having helmed the cult hit Stake Land. “Sweet Tooth” shares a certain look and feel with that tale of a devastated rural American landscape overrun with vampires. Fans of Lemire’s comic will realize, rather quickly, that “Sweet Tooth” wanders notably far afield from its source material. It keeps the same setting and a handful of the characters but invents a great deal more background and storyline to go along with them.
The series is narrated, as if it were a philosophical fairy tale, by James Brolin. The senior Mr. Brolin informs us that a mysterious viral plague is busy wiping out large chunks of humanity. At the same time, a bizarre biological phenomenon occurs: Children are suddenly born as “hybrids,” with a mixture of human and animal DNA. Unsure if these strange animal children are the cause of or a response to the plague, humanity naturally goes with the nastier option and starts hunting them down and wiping them out.
Our main protagonist is Gus (newcomer Christian Convery), an innocent half-boy half-deer who is raised in the backwoods isolation of Yellowstone National Park by his paranoid father (Will Forte, in a surprisingly serious cameo). These early sequences (actually shot in New Zealand) have a sort of “Winnie the Pooh” quality, with Gus growing up in a more-or-less idyllic “Hundred Acre Wood”-type setting. After 10 years, however, the real world comes knocking at Gus’ front door, and he’s obliged to confront life in postapocalyptic America. This takes the form of a fantasy-style quest in which Gus (now nicknamed “Sweet Tooth” for his newfound love of candy) joins forces with a gruff hunter called “Big Man” (Nonso Anozie from Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla) and a teenage rebel named “Bear” (Stephanie LaVia Owen from “The Carrie Diaries”) to travel to the faraway land of Colorado in search of his long-lost mother. (Here, the show ditches its Winnie the Pooh references for Wizard of Oz nods.) Naturally, of course, Gus soon learns that humanity has fractured off into various violent, strangely dressed tribes battling one another for dwindling resources. (Is there a fictional apocalypse in which we haven’t taken this route? I’m saving up fishnet stockings and face paint for just such an occasion.)
Although Gus’ various scary, fun, violent, enlightening encounters along the way make up the backbone of the narrative here, this version splits up the story among a couple other key characters.
Occasionally, we check in with Dr. Aditya Sing (Adeel Akhtar), a genial doctor desperately searching for a cure for the mysterious virus known as “The Sick” in order to save his beloved wife. It’s through him that we track what as happened to humanity. And mostly, it’s ruled over by a gun-toting militia known as the “Last Men,” whose job it is to hunt down and eliminate the hybrid children they believe are supplanting the human race.
And sometimes we drift off to check in on Aimee Eden (Dania Ramirez), a burned-out therapist who took over a zoo after the world fell apart and now finds herself the founder of a “safe haven” for hybrids. She’s the hopeful yin to the murderous yang of the Last Men (personified by creepy General Abbot, played by South African actor Neil Sandiland from The CW’s “The 100”).
It’s nice to get a good strong background on the supporting characters, particularly when we know their paths will all eventually intertwine. But “Sweet Tooth” is strongest when it concentrates on its guileless prepubescent hero. Dr. Sing’s story, with its broken-down suburban paranoia, reads a bit like a lost season of “The Walking Dead.” Aimee’s story adds some helpful humanity, but takes some of the tension out of the season’s cliffhanger ending. Gus, however, remains the eternally sunny optimist who keeps viewers’ spirits from sagging too much in this dark (but still family friendly) world of our future. Convery is a bright performer, and his interactions with Big Man and various others keeps the series centered and emotionally engaging.
Although there are familiar elements of postapocalyptic journeys from Mad Max to “The Walking Dead” to The Last of Us to The Road, “Sweet Tooth” contains enough original elements to stand out from the crowd. Mickle and his crew have crafted a surprisingly “green” apocalypse, a world in which nature has lashed out and is doing its best to replace the human race. And the viral pandemic elements in the original comic book have been amplified to comport with today’s COVID-19 environment. Some may find references to mask-wearing and social-distancing uncomfortably timely, but they form the realistic backdrop of this entertaining modern-day fantasy. Watch it now, with the coronavirus lockdown easing and the human race returning to its usual everyday tedium—and maybe think about what the Earth has got in store for us next time. (It’s not too early to shop for those fishnets.)