Netflix’s Sweet Tooth spins some YA magic from the horror of plague

·6 min read
Stefania Lavie Owen, Christian Convery, and Nonso Anozie in Sweet Tooth
Stefania Lavie Owen, Christian Convery, and Nonso Anozie in Sweet Tooth

Is anyone really hankering for pandemic-based storytelling right now? Pity Sweet Tooth, a victim of bad timing, whose production was halted by COVID-19 for some months last year before resuming shooting in New Zealand, but whose story—despite its fanciful premise—often resonates with uncomfortable relevancy, as characters turn on one another and inflict merciless violence against the suspected infected. (The series does itself no favors by leaning into the real-world comparison, with fading signs in its post-apocalyptic world depicting the former civilization’s warning to maintain “6 feet social distancing,” and a satirical scene, presumably written post-COVID, of a character scoffing at another’s insistence on wearing a mask.) Happily, the plague-driven paranoia only accounts for about one-third of the deeply trifurcated story, but it’s enough to occasionally leave a world-weary viewer wishing to spend time elsewhere.

It’s too bad those concerns have to intrude upon the proceedings, because there’s a lot to like about this shaggy dog of a road-trip series. If there’s an actual opposite to the expression “young at heart,” it’s arguably captured by this big-hearted fantasy drama. (“Old soul” doesn’t really count, unless you’ve heard it wielded outside of a pickup line.) The series displays an admirable commitment to hard-eyed maturity in the way it treats both its 10-year-old protagonist and its audience; as much as The Hunger Games franchise and others may have normalized steely-eyed encounters with death and the tragedies of life for young people, Netflix’s new show hearkens back even more to Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment storytelling of the 1980s, with its belief that kids don’t need their hands held through the darker chapters of a narrative, any more than adults should be alienated by a kid-centric plot.

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And kids are central to this story in more ways than one. The series is set roughly a decade after an illness known as “The Great Crumble” dismantled society as we know it: Simultaneously, adults began dying of a highly contagious illness, and all children subsequently born in its wake were dubbed “hybrids” thanks to their unusual genetic makeup—part-human, part-animal. Gus (Christian Convery) is among the first of these children, a boy with some elements of deer mixed into his DNA. Raised in isolation deep in Yellowstone National Park by his father (an earnest Will Forte), he’s eventually forced to survive alone after dad dies in an effort to keep them hidden from the outside world. After discovering a picture of the woman he suspects is his mother (Amy Seimetz), Gus decides to find her and break his promise to remain forever inside the safety of his dad’s sanctuary. When he’s immediately attacked by poachers, he realizes his safety depends on tagging along with the hulking, mysterious “Big Man” named Jepperd (Nonso Anozie, best known in America as Xaro Xhoan Daxos from Game Of Thrones’ season three) who begrudgingly saves his life—and even more begrudgingly lets Gus follow along.

From there, it’s a series of often self-contained episodic adventures as the pair make their way across the wide-open landscapes of the Western hills and Midwestern plains, the series maximizing every opportunity for majestic vistas to conjure a sense of old-school American frontier escapism. En route to the stated goal of Colorado (where said picture of Gus’ mom was taken), the two encounter a variety of threats, none more dangerous than the Last Men, a movement of reactionary fascists who blame the hybrids for the virus and are intent on wiping them out while establishing an authoritarian dominance over the oft-lawless lands—and seeking a cure for both illness and hybridism alike. Oddly, the show chooses to withhold revealing its Big Bad until halfway through the season, but once he arrives, there’s an increasing tension that builds, a sense of noose-tightening anxiety that helps goose along several episodes that otherwise feel uneven in execution.

And that unevenness is largely thanks to the aforementioned splitting of the narrative into three different arcs. First up, there’s the tale of Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar), who lives with his wife Rani (Aliza Vellani) in an upscale community that has managed to stave off much of the outside world’s decay—but at the cost of neighbor-spying-on-neighbor fearfulness. This “who can you trust?” paranoia is given urgency by the fact that Rani is also Dr. Singh’s patient “Jane Doe”: the one person infected with the sickness whom he has managed to keep alive thanks to an experimental drug, but whose symptoms continually threaten to reappear unless he can produce more of the serum. This narrative ends up playing a key role in the overarching plot, but makes for a jarring tonal shift at times. Much less developed is the story of Aimee (Dania Ramirez), who holes up in an abandoned zoo following the outbreak, where she stumbles upon a cast-off baby hybrid whom she names Wendy and raises as her own. The two eventually set up a “Hybrid Preserve” meant to be a safe space for kids in hiding, using a ham radio and dropping leaflets in hopes of bringing the hunted population to their secure home. These stories eventually all converge (implying a much more cohesive season two, should it be ordered), but we simply don’t spend enough time at the zoo, especially in the early going, to get a fully developed sense of character.

Still, the fact that this unwieldy balancing act works as well as it does is probably thanks to showrunner Jim Mickle, whose knack for creating stories that fuse a sense of retro Americana with idiosyncratic and avowedly forward-thinking yarns was on full display with his previous series, Hap And Leonard, as well as genre films like Cold In July and Stake Land. (The latter, in particular, looks in hindsight like a dry run for this much bigger canvas on which to paint his open-road imagery.) Reworking the eponymous comic-book source material (written and drawn by Jeff Lemire) in ways both large and small, he manages to streamline some unwieldy character arcs and find efficient shortcuts between the one-off installments and the overarching story, all without ever feeling rushed. If anything, the show could occasionally use a little more breathing room, a rarity for a Netflix series; yet the sparingly deployed voiceover narration from James Brolin (doing his best Sam Elliott) goes a long way toward making it all feel more relaxed, like a campfire story that’s just getting going.

And ultimately, that’s the largest problem with Sweet Tooth, the same one to which many a contemporary series planning ahead for multi-season arcs falls victim: A lot of this feels like prologue to the real story, a first chapter to a much broader, more fleshed-out tale that has all put all the pieces in place that it takes the concluding episode of this season to reach. Luckily, the charismatic cast and a sure-footed command of story beats keep it on the right side of plodding. With a winning (and occasionally brutal) approach to its darkly fantastical imaginings, Sweet Tooth find a nice balance between its sugary and bitter elements.