Netflix’s new fantasy series, Sweet Tooth, first looks like a crudely fictionalized version of 2020. A disease colloquially referred to as The Sick spreads rapidly among humans while overwhelming infrastructure, grinding daily life to a halt, and racking up a body count. When this story begins, society tries to put itself together again. An unnamed narrator calls it “The Great Crumble.”
This disaster, however, can’t be contained even to the extent of COVID-19. No cure or vaccination has been discovered, so most humans opt to live in isolation either as individuals or as disease-free groups. This withdrawal has allowed nature to essentially step into the void—animals previously only seen in a zoo roam free, and landscapes grow out in full to replenish what society previously destroyed for resources.
Oh, and in Sweet Tooth, the next generation of kids appears to include half-animal/half-human individuals called Hybrids. The ratio of column A to column B varies—some talk, some don’t; many look like traditional kids with small animal features; all retain abilities like heightened hearing or smell—but no one seems to know anything for sure. Why did this evolution happen? How many are there? And, most pertinent, what makes Hybrids immune to The Sick? In the face of all that mystery, some portions of this new world look at Hybrids as a hopeful evolution of humanity, a group of individuals society should protect and help thrive. Others, though, see Hybrids as a hindrance to humanity getting past The Sick and returning to normalcy. In particular, Hybrids’ immunity to The Sick has swaths of this new world curious about whether their DNA can be harvested for treatment or prevention.
In the middle of this whole mess sits Gus, a deerboy Hybrid who simply lived a quiet life in an isolated Yellowstone cabin with his father until, well, you can probably see where this is headed. Luckily, that predictability doesn’t make the journey ahead any less fun.
Grin, grim, grin again
So, our Tom Sawyer-loving deerkid has to set off on a country-traversing adventure of his own, and throughout, he’ll encounter numerous individuals with unknown motives who may want him dead or may partner up to become a found family of sorts. I watched a large portion of the series with a teen sibling, and needless to say they were able to call out many of the individual episode’s twists and turns. Sweet Tooth covers a lot of well-worn movie and TV territory, but it will still likely have you in for the long haul if you’re fond of any of the numerous kids-versus-the-world adventures of yore (from The Goonies to Harry Potter).
That said, I was amused by the series’ unique approach to some common aspects of its intersecting genres (kid adventure, post-apocalypse). When Gus and his first new partymate (a former football player turned hunter/assassin named Tommy Jeppard, aka Big Man) inevitably encounter a militarized group of people, that community isn’t full of former cadets or marines. Instead, this amateur army learned its tactics because they were previously a devoted group of friends who played games like Overwatch or Halo. And the scientists who remain and must sort out this disease mess aren’t former government lab jockeys; they used to be regular-old medical care providers. They very much continue to grapple with the trauma of watching all these patients of The Sick deteriorate as this new world asks them to step up and lead, so these docs have their humanity in tact rather than operating only with some “anything for the greater good” mentality.
It would be very, very easy for Sweet Tooth to become too dark, too emotionally heavy, or too tiresome for viewers who have lived some of this stuff IRL in the last 16 months. Again and again, the show gave me flashbacks to when I used to follow The Walking Dead, which I had quit watching entirely after hours and hours of despair. Like TWD, Sweet Tooth has our heroes going through cycles where they encounter many different groups of people who initially seem nice and helpful only to reveal themselves to be something else later on, often with tragic results. (When will people in TV and film learn that there may be no scarier, more dangerous place than white picket fence-lined suburban neighborhoods? Sigh.) In another notable zombie-brains-show similarity, the bad guys (whether that’s a disease or a disassociated lunatic military man) seem to come out on top more often than not, at least in these first eight episodes.
Despite that, Sweet Tooth never veers entirely into ruin porn or nihilism. Mostly, that’s because of its central figure. Unlike Rick Grimes (The Walking Dead), June (Handmaid’s Tale), or many other characters existing in an apocalyptic new reality, Gus is still a kid. The world hasn’t beaten him down into expecting the worst all the time, and his general optimism and wonder keep this story feeling light enough despite many gut punches along the way. Sweet Tooth‘s source comic wrapped in 2013, and production on this Netflix series began long before COVID-19 took over. The creative team had already made a few decisions to tone down the bleakness of the source material, and the benefits of those choices are only amplified by the context viewers bring to the show in summer 2021.
I have yet to actively seek out any pandemic-related pop culture. Maybe my appetite for it will eventually change, though let’s revisit that in a decade. But given how all-encompassing this ongoing global situation has been, of course you can’t help but consume some of it, even by accident. For me, the stuff that works so far has had some degree of optimism or hope underneath the adversity, chaos, and tragedy. The risotto episode of How to With John Wilson, for instance, includes overrun grocery stores and scenes from hospitals, but it ends by underscoring our need for human interaction and the newly realized immense value in it.
On the surface, Sweet Tooth isn’t about the pandemic at all. This show is for teens, and it is not subtle about hammering home a central idea regarding humanity’s role in destroying our planet through climate change and an insatiable thirst for more. However, the show’s plot prominently features a worldwide pandemic, making it impossible to not think about that through the lens of these eight episodes. Ultimately, Sweet Tooth points to a few positive messages amid the disease darkness.
First, don’t be jerks to the youngest generation. We don’t yet know how this will impact them, and they are the future who will unravel this mess and navigate its lasting impact. Additionally, pushing forward necessitates extending kindness to others. The weight of the world is emotionally on everyone’s shoulders (if not physically, to a large extent). And when it’s impossible to know when your next event, trip, family reunion, or whatever thing you look forward to will happen, some other kind of hope must exist for you to believe in if you want any chance at emotional and mental survival. Gus gives that hope to admittedly broken-down individuals like Big Man, and it’s easy to imagine him spreading that optimistic outlook wider in S2 given the pessimistic way things wrap this time around.
Traditionally, summer always felt like a dumping ground for networks to try unusual things as people vacation or generally get out more; bigger series headliners tend to wait for fall returns or premieres accordingly (see Y: The Last Man or The Foundation in 2021). But recent years have seen surprises emerge at the end of spring and become their own critical darlings (HBO’s Los Espookys) or megafranchises (Stranger Things). Whether Sweet Tooth can travel the same surprise path to stardom remains to be seen, but it’s at least nice to have a new show worth following as we enter another summer where travel might be complicated (though, mercifully, not as complicated as it is in Sweet Tooth).
Listing image by Kirsty Griffin / Netflix © 2021