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Satisfying a 'Sweet Tooth' for Dystopia

Some stories show us that humans cause the world to be a dark and dangerous place. Some stories remind us how to be better humans through characters that are idealistically kind. This is a story that does both. This is the story of Gus, a little boy with the ears, antlers, and senses of a deer that figures out how to be kind despite living in a world that hates him. Gus also happens to possess an insatiable sweet tooth.

Sweet Tooth is a Netflix adaptation of a DC Comics graphic novel set nine years after an apocalyptic event called “the Great Crumble,” following the few remaining survivors of a global pandemic referred to as “the Sick.” Because the source material was published in 2009 and the show finished writing before COVID-19 descended in 2020, Sweet Tooth is more prescient than exploitative, but showrunners Jim Mickle and Beth Schwartz (along with executive producers Robert Downey Jr. and his wife Susan Downey) saw current events as an opportunity to reduce the clunky exposition that might need to take place if audiences were not familiar with the reality of a global health crisis. Aside from the death toll, the major difference between the Sick and COVID-19 is that all children born after the Sick are born like Gus – as human-animal hybrids. Sweet Tooth is relevant, but it also tells its own rich and unique story that eloquently showcases its enchanting characters.

The story begins in a small cabin in the heart of Yellowstone National Park, now free from tourist infestation. Ten-year-old Gus (Christian Convery) lives with his “Pubba” (Will Forte), who makes Gus’ world the happiest he can while strictly prohibiting him from traveling beyond the fence that surrounds their land. Gus and Pubba’s utopia soon breaks down, however, and Gus is forced to run away alongside the mysterious and formidable Tommy “Big Man” Jepperd (Nonso Anozie) on what becomes a hopeful quest to find Gus’ mom and the secrets of where he came from. Gus and Big Man’s journey takes them through a world that has not recovered from The Great Crumble. The Sick still runs rampant and hybrids are hunted because of their apparent connection to the Sick, and the villainous paramilitary group Last Men have taken martial-law style political control.

Convery’s happy-go-lucky, inquisitive Gus and Anozie’s stoic, cynical Jepperd do a fantastic job of carrying the comedy and drama in an unlikely buddy pairing, but the show benefits just as much from its richly built world and parallel storylines. The show features an engaging B-story involving Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar) and his wife Rani (Aliza Vellani) as they struggle to hide a deadly secret in a too-picturesque-to-be-real suburbia (behind a guarded fence to keep out the Sick).

Dr. Singh’s goal is to discover a cure for the Sick and bring normalcy back to the world. Both Akhtar and Vellani’s performances are emotional and effective, and as the show crosses from season one to two, their storyline offers some of the best payoffs Sweet Tooth has to offer – and the show never skimps on payoffs.

Each time a new character or setting is introduced, the show takes time to ensure the audience understands motivations and presents engaging backstories, avoiding the typical origin-story staleness. In Sweet Tooth, these self-contained asides always add depth and advance the story. One shining example is the introduction of the Animal Army in the fourth episode, in which Gus and Big Man meet a group of teenagers that have sworn to protect hybrids against the humans that mistreat them.

The episode functions as its own Lord of the Flies-esque mini-movie of teens left to their own devices dealing the best they can with the ethics of living in a dystopian world. Their spirited and rebellious leader Bear (Stefanie LaVie Owen) is another character who is given rich treatment in season one that develops into a brilliant C-story in season two.

While season one features Gus and Big Man’s road trip, season two remains mostly stationary in the Essex County Zoo, where Aimee Eden (Dania Ramirez), a mental health counselor before the Great Crumble, has set up a sanctuary for the ever-endangered child hybrids. Some, like Wendy (Naledi Murray), look like human children with a few animal features, but in others, like the adorable groundhog-hybrid Bobby (a puppeteering performance from Paul Lewis), the hybrid strain has developed purely animal features in a humanoid shape. Aimee turns the zoo into a stronghold against enemies to protect these children that would never be able to hide themselves. As the chilling General Abbot (Neil Sandilands), leader of the Last Men, takes a more prominent and sinister role in the second season, the defiant spirit of Aimee and her kids turn Sweet Tooth into an epic battle for survival.

All this excellent writing works more effectively for the addition of the magical production design. The fear in dressing a character in human/animal costume and makeup is that, if it is done poorly, the audience will be distracted from the story. With Sweet Tooth, the animal design elements are unquestionably natural for the hybrid characters. Instead of picking out flaws, I find myself wondering how they found a child with a pig nose to play Wendy or deer antlers to play Gus. The design works with diegetic elements to suspend disbelief; it is more believable that the children are animals because not all of them can communicate verbally, and many need to sign language.

The sets themselves show off the natural beauty of New Zealand. Sure, the story is supposed to be set in the western U.S., but no one could complain about the majestic mountains and lush woodlands on display. The apocalyptic premise of Sweet Tooth provides an opportunity to show a man-made world slowly being taken back by nature. The dilapidated zoo flooded with natural light and the ivy twisting through the wreck of the surrounding city are prime examples of how the show uses its sets to evoke the idea of a dystopian fairy tale. Pubba and Gus’ cabin is another – the simple organic structure full of quirky homemade tools is the perfect setting in which to introduce the unique premise and protagonist.

Sweet Tooth gets frighteningly dark, but the creators and cast weave a relentless optimism into that darkness. Nothing appears more hopeless than the apocalypse, but Gus and company’s joy and laughter offer a humanizing hope within the circumstances. The show builds pitch-perfect tension, twisting and turning in ways that keep a central focus on character development and leave the audience guessing. Sweet Tooth’s uniting theme is the destructive tendency of humans toward themselves and their planet, but the more powerful overriding theme is their capacity to overcome that tendency and live on, inspired by the kindness of Gus. As the show awaits its third and final season (unaffected by the current writer’s strike, as production has already taken place), you should waste no time in seeking out and experiencing the charm of Gus’ story.



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