Netflix’s ‘Sweet Tooth’ is an apocalyptic modern fairy tale with a beautiful heart

Every living thing on this planet shares the imperative to survive and reproduce. Plants exist to grow seeds and scatter them, animals lay eggs or give birth, and viruses mutate to infect more hosts and spread. Life is the game and those are the only rules. The rules themselves have no moral value, but what is done in pursuit of survival and reproduction can improve lives or deal irreparable harm. Sweet Tooth on Netflix is a beautiful and complicated imagining of a world where life’s rules changed overnight and humanity lost their game. 

Sweet Tooth begins with narration that explains what happened: An incurable and untreatable viral pandemic wiped out most of the human population and, at the same time, all human pregnancies suddenly resulted in the births of human-animal hybrid children. The question of which came first, the virus or the hybrids, is one of the central questions of the show, but whatever the answer is, humanity got it wrong. They vilified hybrids and exterminated their own animal children, damning the surviving population to live as humanity’s final generation. 

Well, not everyone got it wrong. The titular character Gus (Christian Convery), aka “Sweet Tooth,” is a deer-boy hybrid whose father fled with him to live alone in a fenced-in wood isolated from the growing apocalypse. Gus grows up knowing only what his father Pubba can teach him and the show’s narrative begins when he is 10 years old and finally able to question the rules that dictate his own survival — hiding if he sees a human and never, ever crossing the fence. 

Gus’s upbringing makes him an ideal fairy tale protagonist. Like so many secret princes and captive princesses, his isolation makes him clever and resourceful, but profoundly naive and ignorant of humanity. When confronted with the tragedy of his father’s death, Gus behaves and keeps the rules until they break themselves, forcing him on a journey across the former United States to reestablish some stability with his other parent, the mother he never knew. 

With Gus on his journey is Tommy “Big Man” Jepperd (Nonso Anozie), a former NFL player turned wandering hybrid hunter who curiously saved Gus’ life and now can’t shake the little guy no matter how hard he tries. Jeppard and Gus are an adorable entry into the resurgent “violent freelancers accidentally becoming dads” trope (see: The Witcher and The Mandalorian) and their developing relationship over the first season’s eight episodes is Sweet Tooth‘s greatest strength. Anozie and Convery have astounding chemistry, backed by Convery’s endearing performance of Gus’ naivete and Anozie’s incredibly expressive face. 

The world Big Man and Gus traverse together is a shattered but recognizable shadow of a society that shot itself in the foot and kept on shooting.

The world Big Man and Gus traverse together is a shattered but recognizable shadow of a society that shot itself in the foot and kept on shooting. The survivors of humanity either live violent lives as hunters and killers or cloister themselves in isolated mini-communities that police every member for signs of the virus (called “the sick”). When someone does get sick, the twisted ritual of cling-wrapping them to a chair and burning their house down around them is treated as an expected community activity. Some people maintained their humanity, but the pervasive stigma against hybrids is near-universal and often lethal for the surviving animal children. 

With all of that and more, Sweet Tooth is a fairly dark show. Gus’ childlike perspective makes the wild and overgrown world seem beautiful and interesting, but a lot of what he’s actually witnessing is terribly violent. His vulnerability as a character that knows nothing of the worst of humanity puts Big Man (and the audience) in a position of feeling happy for him as he sees and learns what his father couldn’t show him and terrified for his safety at every moment — kind of like being Gus’ parent, if deer kids were a real thing. 

Along with Gus’ story, Sweet Tooth follows a few other characters’ post-apocalyptic lives for reasons that only become apparent as the story reaches its cliffhanger climax in the Season 1 finale. These characters are Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar), whose drive to treat and cure the virus comes from his wife Rani’s (Aliza Vellani) long-term infection, and Aimee (Dania Ramirez), an ex-therapist who lives in an abandoned zoo with an adopted hybrid child of her own. Their stories cleverly serve the dual purposes of plot and world-building, since Gus and Big Man’s perspective is limited to their road trip. 

Sweet Tooth is fascinating, charming, and it beautifully conveys a feeling of childlike wonder. It’s also a condemnation of humanity’s worst impulses that only slightly heightens what our reaction to a real-life viral hybrid apocalypse might look like. As far as parables go it’s fairly straightforward, but so are the rules for survival — and Sweet Tooth shows that even those are harder to follow than we might think. 

Sweet Tooth is now streaming on Netflix.

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