I’m not generally in a place right now where I’m especially interested in stories about the end of the world, not just because of the circumstances of the past year, but because in my mind so many of those kinds of stories have smoothed in my mind into one landscape of suffering, sweat, and loss.
There are exceptions, of course. Stephen King’s “The Stand” is among my favorite novels, and I have a soft spot for the high-octane power of the “Mad Max” films, but lately my position has been that, if your story is about the end of the world, it’s probably not for me, at least not right now.
Then along came “Sweet Tooth” to not only completely disprove that idea, but make me fall in love with its very specific, very heartfelt view of a crumbling world.
Adapted from the comic of the same name by writer and artist Jeff Lemire and helmed in its Netflix form by showrunner Jim Mickle, “Sweet Tooth” succeeds from the beginning in no small part because it’s more focused on the possibilities lurking at the end of society as we know than it is on the pitfalls. It’s not a horror show or a survival thriller, but rather a kind of dark fairy tale led by a young man who feels like a blinding beacon of hope and love. Through perfect casting, astonishing production design, and a heart that’s firmly in the right place, “Sweet Tooth” becomes the kind of show that can win over just about anyone.
In the future of “Sweet Tooth,” much of humanity has been ravaged by a deadly virus (hang on, it gets better), and with the rise of that virus also came the sudden and inexplicable birth of “Hybrids,” human children born with various animal features. Whether the Hybrids caused the virus or the virus caused the Hybrids, no one can be sure, but their arrival only further stokes tension as the “Great Crumble” breaks down much of society. It’s in this chaos that a father (Will Arnett) takes his Hybrid son Gus, a boy with deer antlers, into the woods to raise him in seclusion, building a peaceful existence in the middle of nowhere. But of course, darkness still lurks out in the wider world, and when a pre-teen Gus (Christian Convery) finds himself alone in the world for the first time, he’ll have to rely on the kindness of a football star turned postapocalyptic warrior named Tommy (Nonso Anozie) to help him move on, whether Tommy wants that or not.
What struck me immediately is just how patient the series is willing to be, not just with its often wild premise, but with its characters and the general flow of time. The series premiere, written and directed by Mickle, expertly contrasts the frantic nature of the unraveling of civilization with the molasses slow, quiet life in the woods that Gus and his father have carved out. There’s a sense that we’re meant to settle into this world, get comfortable with it even though we don’t entirely understand it, so that when the massive disruptions to come hit, they hit with real emotional force. It’s a beautifully paced way of doing things, and it’s bolstered by the absolutely phenomenal production design of the whole series, which simultaneously evokes Lemire’s original comic book panels and looks like something new.
Of course, taking your time also means you risk the audience getting confused, or bored, or both, because you haven’t revealed every truth you possibly could to them yet, and it’s here that the craft applied to “Sweet Tooth” is perhaps even more prominent. At the forefront of it all are the astonishing performances of Arnett, Anozie, and particularly Convery, who delivers Gus’s naïve charm with vulnerability, grace, and wit. But even beyond that, Mickle and his team are creating a whole world lurking behind the human relationships at the fore. There’s the sense that the people making this show really do know exactly what they’re doing, and if you don’t know something it’s because they just haven’t decided it’s time for you to know it. There’s a confidence and a warmth to it that radiates through the screen.
But more than any of that, “Sweet Tooth” works because of its indomitable heart. This is not a show about the end of the world, though the end seems to be happening around it as it unfolds. This is a show about the beginning of something new: New connections, new passions, new reasons to go on living. It’s that sense of renewal, of hope amid the crumbling, that makes “Sweet Tooth” a must-see new series, and one of the most buoyant stories about the apocalypse you’re ever likely to see.
‘Sweet Tooth’ is available now on Netflix.