At first glance, Sweet Tooth seems like an odd title for a post-apocalyptic drama, particularly one about an apocalypse caused by a virus, which has the unfortunate timing to arrive while we are still digging our way out from under Covid. But once we get to know its adorable young hero Gus, “sweet” turns out to be the most accurate possible adjective to describe the show.
Adapted by Jim Mickle (Happ and Leonard) from a comic book by Jeff Lemire, Sweet Tooth takes place a decade after “the Great Crumble,” in which a virus ravaged most of the human population while — coincidentally or not — all babies started being born as human-animal hybrids. Gus, played by Christian Convery, has the ears and antlers of a deer (and some enhanced senses to go along with them), but is otherwise a rambunctious and friendly kid who has spent the first decade of his life being sheltered from the wreckage of society by his father (Will Forte), whom he refers to as “Pubba.” Pubba has shielded Gus from the nightmare the world has become, and instilled in him a curious and compassionate spirit that proves almost as infectious as the virus that caused the Great Crumble. Almost everyone who meets Gus — particularly imposing ex-football player Tommy Jepperd (Nonso Anozie from Game of Thrones) — can’t help feeling protective of the kid, and inspired to be better than they thought was still possible in this bleak new reality.
As a result of Gus’ radiating kindness, plus other touches like some homespun narration by James Brolin, Sweet Tooth quickly starts to feel less like a dystopian nightmare than a slightly dark but mostly optimistic fairy tale — and a very entertaining one, at that.
Much of the show’s success leans on Convery. If the audience doesn’t feel an instant degree of affection for Gus, very little of it works. Convery makes Gus seem cute but not cloying, innocent but not naive, likable but not too perfect. It’s an impressive balancing act from such a young performer, and scenes with him bring out the best in Forte, Anozie, and Stefania LaVie Owen (as Bear, leader of a cult that reveres and protects the hybrids). Whether Gus and friends are having scary adventures or fun ones, those parts of Sweet Tooth are full of life, and as exciting or tense as needed.
The show can be hit or miss, though, when it moves away from Gus, and those subplots not coincidentally tend to work best the closer they stick to his childlike worldview. Dania Ramirez plays Aimee, who was a therapist in the before time and now lives in an abandoned zoo, and her scenes largely have the same storybook tone as Gus’. On the other hand, material involving Adi Singh (Adeel Akhtar), a doctor still working to cure the virus after all these years, or General Abbott (Neil Sandilands), the despot whose militia of Last Men controls what’s left of America, feels like material that got cut from a previous Walking Dead season because it was too generic(*).
(*) Abbott has a bushy beard and distinctive, round, flip-up sunglasses. Like a lot of the characters, you can tell he was designed to look interesting on the comic-book page. But there’s not much to him beyond that appearance. Whereas Gus looks terrific — the ears in particular feel fully alive — but is also a fully three-dimensional person.
The Singh and Abbott subplots also feel like they were designed for a more adult show, and perhaps had to have their edges sanded off once it became clear to Mickle and his collaborators that the show could be enjoyed by viewers not much older than Gus. In particular, there are major developments in Singh’s work on a cure that are only barely alluded to, because outright explaining them would be too horrifying.
The TV pilot was filmed in 2019, but the series didn’t return to production until after a very real and terrifying virus had radically altered life as we knew it. That first episode is already considerably lighter than Lemire’s comic. (Among the many differences: Gus’ father in the comics is a religious zealot, where here Pubba listens to the Grateful Dead and makes Gus homemade versions of classic books like The Velveteen Rabbit.) So the shift in tone wasn’t a result of Covid, but a lucky break nonetheless. There’s probably a more spiritually faithful adaptation of the comic that could be interesting in our own pandemic-altered world, but it would be hard. Filtering the material through Gus’ (occasionally glowing) eyes creates just enough distance from reality to make the YA-style adventure feel like its own often thrilling thing, rather than yet another awkward reminder of the world beyond our quarantines.
Netflix is releasing all eight episodes of Sweet Tooth on June 4th. I’ve seen the whole season.