Netflix's 'Sweet Tooth' is a daring but warm look at the ugly surprises of a post-pandemic world
Category: News & PoliticsVia: perrie-halpern • 2 weeks ago • 1 comments
By: Sam Thielman
At the risk of stating the obvious, stories of the post-apocalypse tend to be depressing. Kids, though, are immune to the soporific effects of nostalgia; they're going to be nostalgic only for the world as it is now or maybe as it was a minute ago, whether or not grownups think it's horrible and remember better times. Their needs are immediate and mostly physical.
That's one reason that tone of "Sweet Tooth" balances on a knife's edge; the title refers to its 10-year-old protagonist's — Gus, played by Christian Convery — love of candy, which he shares with nearly all little kids. But that love is what helps so-called normal people who fear him (or want to imprison him, or see him dead) to recognize his obvious humanity.
Gus, by the way, is looking for his mom; the first few times he sees a grown woman, no matter how she reacts toward him, he asks if she knows her, as though all moms are in a big mom's club. (Convery's performance is an embarrassment of little-kid riches.)
Jeff Lemire's comics series "Sweet Tooth," from which the Netflix series is adapted, is a beautiful frightening take on the post-apocalypse — austere, clever and occasionally brutal — and from it, series creator Jim Mickle has crafted a warm and colorful melodrama about a strange little boy and his ad hoc family living after the end of civilization. It retains many of the comics' daring ideas, but fills up the gap between comics and film with jokes and gentle character work.
Series creator Jim Mickle has crafted a warm and colorful melodrama about a strange little boy and his ad hoc family living after the end of civilization.
Gus has deer ears and antlers and lives isolated in the woods with his father (Will Forte) at the beginning of the show, but soon finds himself learning more about the troubled world outside, which has collapsed in on itself after a global pandemic leads to both a panic and a roundup of all the kids with animal features like Gus's.
His guide to the outside world is Tommy Jepperd (the fantastic Nonso Anozie), an ex-football player with a dark past. (Lemire previously said that an old Punisher story by "The Boys" writer Garth Ennis inspired the thin, grizzled, white, Clint-Eastwoody look of the comic-book Jepperd; casting a bulky Black actor with solid comic chops in the series changes and broadens the story's scope.) Having Gus bouncing around Jepperd's Punisher-style grim antihero as the pair wander the countryside between Yellowstone and the Colorado border occasionally makes Jepperd look a little pleasantly ridiculous; when it comes time for the series' ultra-tense action scenes, it also makes him look huge.
The show finds a lot of novel ways to surprise an audience that has seen probably too many shows about the end of the world at this point. Many of its best moments come when a heroic character has a daring plan that seems sure to work … and then spectacularly fails to carry it out. In others, characters who die in early episodes go on to meet cute, flirt and live the better parts of their lives in flashbacks we get to see. "Sweet Tooth" is always threatening to get too dark or too saccharine, but somehow it never swerves too far in either direction.
Lemire's comic was horribly prescient about a great deal: His cover painting for issue is of helpless kids from the series' animal-child underclass behind a chain link fence, their fingers laced through the wires. Today, it could practically be a news photo of the U.S.'s increasingly cruel immigrant child detention practices; several scenes of the comic are set in what might as well be one of ICE's "baby jails."
Lemire's most provocative idea, preserved by Mickle, is that erasing the boundary between humans and animals might force us to reckon with the way we treat animals as well as the way we treat people.
Thankfully, Mickle tends to establish grim settings in the series and then use them as stages for jokes; at one point, a character on the verge of being killed by his neighbors refers to them as "savages with better haircuts" and everyone glances over at another of their number, who definitely has the nicest haircut in the mob.
But more interestingly, Mickle and his team weave the principal characters' histories together in a way that seems meant to engender sympathy for all but the worst of them. Mickle, it sometimes turns out, already has us rooting for people before we see them doing some really bad things.
Lemire's most provocative idea, preserved by Mickle, is that erasing the boundary between humans and animals might force us to reckon with the way we treat animals as well as the way we treat people. The kids in "Sweet Tooth" might hold the key to curing the disease that has killed millions upon millions — so they're kidnapped from loving homes, experimented upon and vivisected.
Some of those children with animal-like qualities, we come to learn, are more animal-like than our protagonist — often incapable of human speech. That lack of one human ability is then used to justify their state's actions against them, as though their right to live free and happy lives is in question because of their deviations from the perceived human norm.
Like the X-Men stories, "Sweet Tooth" can be read as a story of any oppressed class, but its emphasis on the way otherwise good people justify cruelty by measuring moral worth by perceived intelligence or normativity is both timeless and, perhaps sadly, timely.
"When things fall apart, we find out who we really are," the narrator (James Brolin) observes over the first season's closing montage (one of many self-consciously corny Western-style narrations). That's true in both good ways and bad, and "Sweet Tooth" often leaves you wondering which way someone will jump. I'm looking forward to more.
Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the creator, with film critic Alissa Wilkinson, of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Columbia Journalism Review, The Guardian, Talking Points Memo and Variety. In 2017 he was political consultant for Comedy Central's "The President Show."