In the normal course of events, I wouldn’t be paying attention to Sweet Tooth (streams on Netflix). Too much eye-rolling involved. It arrived recently and my interest was piqued by two things. First, while looking for more information than the summary “endearing family-friendly fable,” I came across a review by a Netflix subscriber saying it was, hands down, the best thing watched all year. Then I heard that the original source material – comics written and drawn by Canadian Jeff Lemire – had been summarized as “Mad Max meets Bambi.” Well in that case, I could give it a go.
Sweet Tooth feels awfully familiar at first, and then goes places that surprise and delight. It opens with a civilization-changing pandemic crippling the world. (Hey, look outside!) One strange, uncanny aspect to this woe-inducing event, which is called “The Great Crumble,” is the birth of thousands of animal hybrid infants. One such infant, part-deer and part-human, is taken by his father (Will Forte) to be raised in isolation in the woods. Dad names the boy Gus (played by Christian Convery) and teaches him to survive in their remote camp, away from a world that’s destroying itself.
It’s idyllic, of course. The natural world looks lush and verdant. We’ve seen this before. In several apocalyptic dramas, The Walking Dead being the classic, and in the child-raised-in-remote-places stories, such as Amazon Prime Video’s Hanna. Nature is benign, it’s humans that are dangerous and unreliable.
Here, the look of the show, all opulent colours, and its tone, which veers toward magic realism in its treatment of animals, turn it all into a contemporary fable. Gus, who has antlers growing on his head, is drawn out into the world. In fact, it’s deer that draw him out. Eventually he abandons seclusion to find his mother, who might be thousands of miles away. He’s also entering a new world in which these hybrid children like him are being blamed for the virus that brought a world to collapse. His guide is Tommy Jepperd (Nonso Anozie), a former football player who is a crusty-but-lovable figure and exasperated by kids. And there’s the girl Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen), an idealist trying to protect those hated hybrids.
And so it becomes a journey-tale of discovery and dangers while searching for family. Gus meets others like him and the people trying to protect them. (One plot strand has a therapist living in an abandoned zoo, a sanctuary for hybrids who are awesomely cute.) At times, the child-like innocence of it all threatens to overwhelm the viewer who has even an ounce of cynicism. But you’re not overwhelmed precisely because you realize that the proximity of the plot to our pandemic-scarred present means the uplifting story is actually a tonic.
Some elements do border on the silly. There’s a militia group called The Last Men that believes hybrids should all be killed off or tortured in experiments. Their leader (Neil Sandilands) is very much a cartoon villain. And, as in any journey-story, characters appear and are left behind before they are fully known.
Yet it works as therapeutic optimism. It is strangely heartening to see the emphasis on a child’s naivete and ingrained goodness in a world torn apart by a killing virus. The series is adapted by Jim Mickle and Beth Schwartz, and they deliberately lighten the tone and remove the sense of menace that was in Jeff Lemire’s original story and images. But there remains a possibly very-Canadian aspect to Lemire’s work that is retained – the sense of nature being a healing force and that what’s happening is that the natural world is taking over again, as humans have ruined the planet. There is also what feels like a Canadian approach to respecting the work of health care and front-line workers.
If you want a post-apocalypse drama that is bracing in its terror and political in its depiction of what-went-wrong, look out for Black Summer, which returns for its second season on Thursday on Netflix. But if you want to soak in a warm bath of sweetness, which stays just shy of saccharine, then Sweet Tooth is the unlikely but welcome escape you need.
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