Netflix’s ‘Sweet Tooth’ is a bold but warm take on the unpleasant surprises of a post-pandemic world
At the risk of stating the obvious, post-apocalypse stories tend to be depressing. Children, however, are immune to the sleeping pills of longing; they’ll only be nostalgic for the world as it is now or maybe as it was a minute ago, whether or not adults think it’s horrible and remember better times. Their needs are immediate and above all physical.
This is one of the reasons why the tone of “Sweet Tooth” balances on the edge of a knife; the title refers to its 10-year-old protagonist – Gus, played by Christian Convery – the love of candy, which he shares with almost every little kid. But this love is what helps the so-called normal people who fear him (or want to imprison him, or see him dead) to recognize his obvious humanity.
By the way, Gus is looking for his mother; the first few times he sees a grown woman, no matter how she reacts to him, he asks her if she knows her, as if all moms are in a big moms club. (The performance of Convery is an embarrassment for the riches of little children.)
Jeff Lemire’s “Sweet Tooth” comic book series, from which the Netflix series is adapted, is a beautiful, chilling take on the post-apocalypse – austere, clever and at times brutal – and from it, the creator of the Jim Mickle series has designed a warm and colorful melodrama. about a strange little boy and his ad hoc family living after the end of civilization. It retains a lot of bold ideas from the comics, but bridges the gap between comic book and movie with jokes and sweet character work.
Series creator Jim Mickle has crafted a warm and colorful melodrama about a strange little boy and his ad hoc family living after the end of civilization.
Gus has stag ears and antlers and lives isolated in the woods with his father (Will Forte) at the start of the show, but soon finds himself learning about the troubled world outside, which has collapsed on himself after a global pandemic led to both a panic and a roundup of all children with animal characteristics like Gus’s.
His guide to the outside world is Tommy Jepperd (the fantastic Nonso Anozie), a former footballer with a dark past. (Lemire previously said that an old Punisher story by “The Boys” writer Garth Ennis inspired the thin, grizzled, white, and Clint-Eastwoody look of the Jepperd comic book; the cast of a bulky black actor with solid comedic chops in the series changes and expands the scope of the story.) The fact that Gus bounces around Jepperd’s sinister Punisher-style antihero as the couple roam the countryside between Yellowstone and the border of the Colorado sometimes makes Jepperd a little ridiculously ridiculous; when it comes to the show’s super-tense action scenes, that also makes it look huge.
The show finds plenty of new ways to surprise an audience that has probably seen too many doomsday shows by this point. Many of his best moments come when a heroic character has a bold plan that seems to work for sure… and then dramatically fails to make it happen. In others, the characters who die in the first few episodes meet cute characters, flirt, and experience the best parts of their lives in flashbacks that we see. “Sweet Tooth” always threatens to get either too dark or too sweet, but somehow it never strays too far back and forth.
Lemire’s comic was horribly premonitory about a lot of things: his cover paint for number 7 depicts helpless children of the animal-child subclass of the series behind a chain-link fence, their fingers intertwined in them. son. Today, that could practically be a topical photo of the increasingly cruel immigrant child detention practices in the United States; several scenes from the comic take place in what could just as easily be one of ICE’s “baby prisons”.
Lemire’s most provocative idea, held by Mickle, is that blurring the line between humans and animals might force us to consider how we treat animals as well as how we treat people.
Fortunately, Mickle tends to set dark settings on the show and then use them as joke scenes; at one point, a character about to be killed by their neighbors calls them “savages with better hairstyles” and everyone glances at another of them, who certainly has the most beautiful haircut in the crowd.
But more interestingly, Mickle and his team weave the stories of the main characters in a way that seems destined to elicit sympathy for all but the worst of them. Mickle, it turns out sometimes, has already encouraged people before he saw them do some really bad things.
Lemire’s most provocative idea, held by Mickle, is that blurring the line between humans and animals might force us to consider how we treat animals as well as how we treat people. The children of “Sweet Tooth” may hold the key to curing the disease that has killed millions and millions – so they are kidnapped into loving, experienced and vivified homes.
Some of these children with animal qualities, we learn, look more like animals than our protagonist – often unable to speak humanly. This lack of human capacity is then used to justify their state’s actions against them, as if their right to live a free and happy life is being called into question due to their deviations from the perceived human standard.
Like the X-Men stories, “Sweet Tooth” can be read as the story of any oppressed class, but its emphasis on how good people justify cruelty by measuring moral worth by perceived intelligence or normativity is both timeless and, perhaps unfortunately, timely.
“When things fall apart, we find out who we really are,” the narrator (James Brolin) observes during season one’s closing cut (one of many consciously cheesy Western-style storytelling). This is true in both good and bad ways, and “Sweet Tooth” often leaves you wondering which way someone is going to jump. I can’t wait to learn more.