The entire first season of Sweet Tooth is currently available to stream worldwide on Netflix.
Sweet Tooth is a strange case of mis-adaptation. On its surface, none of its alterations to Jeff Lemire’s comic are necessarily problems; after all, switching up plot elements for a new medium can be exciting. However, the decision to transform a lurid, spiritual, post-apocalyptic parable into a Steven Spielberg-esque childhood adventure comes with a number of tonal and narrative side-effects, which the series can’t seem to overcome. It also feels unreasonably cheap for an eight-episode Netflix show produced by various arms of Warner Bros. (namely, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Television, and Team Downey from Robert Downey Jr. and wife Susan Downey), but the issue with its second-rate quality isn’t just one of poor compositing and flimsy aesthetics, but of how those aesthetics end up clashing with the story being told.
Ultimately, taking a dark, richly conceived comic told through light and shadow and turning it into a quippy, twee adventure set to upbeat songs like “Dirty Paws” isn’t the problem in and of itself. The problem lies in what this translation ends up sacrificing: the characters’ rigorous emotional journeys, and the life-changing decisions they’re forced to make when faced with difficult circumstances. By making these choices easy, by offering coincidental solutions rather than new hurdles, and by treating hope as an unwavering default setting rather than a precious commodity, the show ends up a thornless adventure across a wasteland that doesn’t actually feel like it’s fallen victim to the end of the world. Despite being made during the COVID pandemic, Sweet Tooth feels like empty poptimism in the face of ill-defined sorrows and tragedies.
The show’s premise, like that of the 2009 Vertigo comic, is undoubtedly intriguing. About a decade ago, the deadly H5G9 virus began culling the human populace, and every child born thereafter was an animal-human hybrid, though no one seems to know which came first. One such hybrid child, a ten-year-old deer-boy named Gus (Christian Convery) lives deep in the woods with his father Richard (Will Forte), who he lovingly calls “Pubba.” The sweet but secretive Richard has little games and rules to keep Gus safe and out of sight, since human beings have a tendency to hunt hybrid children, and Gus’s animalistic ears and pronounced antlers are visible from afar. In fact, ten-year-old Gus has never met another person outside of Richard — that is, until a pair of poachers comes knocking, and Gus is subsequently saved by a large, imposing man named Tommy Jepperd (Nonso Anozie), his unlikely protector and companion for much of the show.
Convery plays Gus with a fittingly doe-eyed innocence, and his practical ears (which were puppeteered from off-screen) add a unique layer to his emotional expression. While the Gus of Lemire’s comic was gaunt and timid, the show’s Gus matches its adventurous, playful tone — but therein lies its first major problem. The world around Gus is anything but playful, and the show refuses to remove its kiddie gloves even during harsher moments. Every character can be neatly sorted into binary “good” or “evil” boxes, and whenever the show approaches anything resembling the comic’s complexity, it finds the most convenient reason to avoid getting its hands dirty, with solutions often magically presenting themselves before anyone has to make a difficult choice.
Netflix’s Sweet Tooth Images
Anozie has a notable physical presence as Jepperd, a key figure in the comic’s vicious moral quandaries, but he’s given little to work with dramatically until well into the final episode. The show’s Jepperd isn’t nearly as interesting or conflicted as his comic counterpart; he does have a few sarcastic quips up his sleeve, which isn’t a replacement for real characterization, but it’s better than nothing. While Gus is given a propulsive reason for setting out on the road — finding his mother Birdie (Amy Seimetz), a nice addition that wasn’t part of the comic — Jepperd is given no such dramatic luxury. Other comic mainstays are present throughout, like Wendy (Naledi Murray), a soft-spoken pig-girl, and Dr. Singh (Adeel Akhtar), a British Asian scientist in desperate search of a cure. Although, rather than introducing them through Gus’s eyes, the show creates a tri-pronged narrative where each character is off on their own tangential journey that barely overlaps with the main story. Neil Sandilands plays the delightfully villainous General Abbot, whose militia group “The Last Men” is hot on Gus and Jepperd’s tail, though it’s unclear whether Abbot himself is even aware they exist.
A few new characters enter the fray, like Aimee (Dania Ramirez), a kindly therapist who takes in stray hybrids, and a teenager nicknamed “Bear” (Stefania LaVie Owen), who leads a band of heroic, costumed hybrid-protectors (a fun inversion of the comic’s animal cultists). However, almost everyone in the show feels passive, and bound by the preordained goings-on of a plot outside their control. No one really makes any meaningful dramatic choices that drive the story, despite the show’s constant chatter about how people change. When the show begins, most of that change appears to have already taken place off-screen.
Singh is a mild exception, as he now has an ailing wife, Rani (Aliza Vellani), to drive his decision-making. Akhtar plays the conscientious doctor as a hollowed-out man, whose trauma from failing to save lives in the early days of the virus (or “the Sick”) invades his every interaction with the members of his tiny commune. This self-sustaining neighborhood is the site of the show’s most memorable sets — like Singh’s lab, carved out of an abandoned fast-food joint — and its only truly haunting moments, once the commune’s rigid regulations surrounding the virus finally come to light.
The hybrid children are immune to the disease and may even hold a cure, which would require Singh to cast aside his medical ethics and his humanity to perform inhumane experiments — but the show rarely treats this idea as anything but a specter off in the distance. The series is seldom under any threat of stepping into moral greys. There’s always a narrative turn just around the corner that prevents things from getting difficult for most of the runtime.
Sweet Tooth sands down almost every possible edge, often to its narrative detriment. When Gus witnesses what ought to be extreme and gut-wrenching violence (involving Jepperd’s ingenious use of a bear trap), the show relegates this moment to the corners of its frame, cutting away instantly and moving on as if nothing really happened. In contrast, the Gus of the comic leaving the comfort of his isolated cabin and dealing with the ugliness of the outside world was a central, soul-stirring tenet of Lemire’s original story. The show is by no means beholden to the comic, but its tonal approach feels especially bizarre when it swaps out only superficial details, but not the underlying premise, in which violence and death lurk around every corner.
The other hybrid children in the comic were often grotesque, and their violent mistreatment elicited sympathy. The show tries to trade on this sympathy without putting in the legwork; the dialog invokes the terrifying thought of hybrid children in cages being sold at wet markets, but the show never actually portrays this on screen. It relies on innuendo about what might happen to these kids if they’re caught, instead of dramatizing its stakes.
Bobby, the comic’s eerie, beaver-like child is given puppy-eyed animatronic form, while the show oddly hides the faces of most of the humanoid kids, and puts as much effort into making them animalistic as last-minute Halloween outfits. It’s downright goofy. The comic’s narrative point of view — in which pity and small acts of kindness helped endear readers to unsettling, uncanny, largely inhuman-looking creatures — is replaced with a smooth TV world where the hybrids are all cute and cuddly but devoid of real ethos, the villains are all immediately irredeemable for wanting to harm them, and no visual or emotional biases end up being challenged in the process. It’s morally uncomplicated, even though characters make constant reference to how complicated the world has become.
Depicting the horrors against these children would no doubt clash with the show’s light, adventurous tone, but it also doesn’t replace any discarded element with something equally compelling. For instance, the show’s spiritual overtones are excised in favor of lip-service to found family, but no character or story arc lives up to the show’s weighty promises of the difficulty of forging bonds amidst rampant mistrust. The whole thing has a storybook feel (it’s occasionally narrated by James Brolin, who adds a nice touch), but when Lemire’s comic took similar detours into storybook territory, it was a temporary respite; a spoonful of sugar for the nauseating medicine which readers had already tasted, and a glimmer of innocence that stood out because of how much innocence had already been lost. The show, on the other hand, treats its own dire premise as if what’s happening on-screen isn’t meant to have an impact on Gus. It doesn’t just feel disconnected from the comic, but from itself.
Source material aside, the show’s visual palette is rather drab, and its environments rarely feel as disconcerting as the characters claim. The exterior daytime scenes — of which there are plenty — suffer from Netflix’s usual desaturated color-timing. It’s mild enough to be inoffensive, but not overt enough to feel like an actual aesthetic decision that helps tell Gus’s story. Rare are the moments when emotions are conveyed visually (showrunner Jim Mickle, who directs four of the eight episodes, is especially guilty of this). Once the show dispenses with its sweeping shots of the New Zealand landscape, its scenes of isolated characters are framed with the same noncommittal two-shot coverage as scenes of characters finally connecting with each other. Even the show’s occasional dream sequences have little to say beyond what the characters in them convey through dialog. A series of flashbacks involving Richard eventually breaks this mold, telling a more nuanced and riveting story than anything in the present, but it doesn’t arrive until the penultimate episode.