Unless you’re into creator-owned comics, there’s a good chance most viewers won’t be aware that Netflix’s new series, Sweet Tooth, is based on writer/artist Jeff Lemire’s Vertigo comic book series of the same name. If you’re a fan of the comics, then there’s an equal chance you’ve been sweating about whether executive producers Jim Mickle (Hap & Leonard) and Team Downey (Robert Downey, Jr. and his wife Susan) manage to honor the complex source material. There’s a lot to tackle in this post-apocalyptic tale about a contemporary virus that sweeps through humanity, wipes out much of us, and ushers in the mysterious manifestation of hybrid children that are part human and part animal. Lemire’s Sweet Tooth is an emotional narrative, mixing together a lot of big ideas that work exceptionally well on paper, but also represent almost all of the red flags of a difficult adaptation: a child lead, animals, disparate tonal shifts, species merging, and (in our current age) pandemic storytelling.
In the wrong hands, a live-action Sweet Tooth is the definition of a nightmare waiting to happen. But I’m thrilled to report, the right hands are all over this series adaptation. The Downeys, Mickle, and executive producer Beth Schwartz (Arrow) retain the lyrical qualities, rich character exploration, and compelling world-building of Lemire’s work, while expanding and fleshing out narrative elements that only add to its depth and resonance. There’s not a clunker amongst the eight episodes dropping on June 4th, which all manage to build up three concurrent storylines that coalesce into a deeply affecting season finale that earns its gasps and tears.
The pilot, so deftly written and directed by Mickle, lays out the high concept of the story brilliantly. There are some elements of Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies living in Sweet Tooth’s premiere, “Out of the Deep Woods,” especially the rich color palette, omniscient narrator—James Brolin speaking in a warm, folksy drawl—and almost child-like perspective of the larger world. In Sweet Tooth, that point of view is even more literal because the core plot is told in the perspective of 10-year-old Gus (Christian Convery), a hybrid boy who is clearly part deer, as noted via his ears and antlers. Raised in solitude for a decade by his father, Pubba (Will Forte), inside a deep forest because of the pandemic, Gus is socially immature (to say the least) but rich in compassion. He’s inquisitive and stubborn, but deeply attached to his dad and the idyllic little cabin bubble they live within. Unfortunately, he’s incredibly unprepared for reality in the outside world, which finally makes itself known in dramatic ways in the first episode.
As with all shows that have a child actor as its core character, Sweet Tooth lives or dies on the shoulders of Convery’s (Legion) performance, and he’s exceptional. He manages to convey the full range of Gus’ personality, from his (sometimes maddening) innocence to his developing emotional intelligence, without making him annoying or cloying. There’s a natural wit to his entire performance that adds subtle layers to the new friendships and alliances he makes with adults and kids in the outside world. In particular, his connection with Tommy Jepperd (Nonso Anozie), a loner/survivor who grudgingly saves Gus’ life and gets stuck shepherding the kid to Colorado, is a masterful evolution from mutual irritation to an earned bond that becomes one of the most important emotional arcs of the whole series. They are perfect scene partners, elevating one another despite their contrasting ages and personalities, which captures the spirit of their page counterparts to a T.
In filling out the world, the series balances two other primary narratives that unfold in parallel to Gus’ which effectively create a greater sense of scope and context about what humanity looks like post-apocalypse. Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar) is a doctor who survives “The Great Crumble,” the name given to the decimation of civilization after several deadly waves of the virus. And Aimee Eden (Dania Ramirez) is a single woman who heads right for her local zoo as society devolves around her, and builds a new life within its walls protecting a hybrid child as their mother.
These stories are peppered throughout all eight episodes, via flashbacks and current storylines, which flesh out the specifics that help build the central mystery of the virus’ origins and relationship to the hybrids. And be prepared, seeing the world through their eyes is not pretty. They deal with some awful realities, and thus the show is not for small kids. But emotionally-mature tweens and teens will weather the themes and sometimes bleak portrayals of what evil looks like in this world.
Dr. Singh and his wife, Rani’s (Aliza Vellani), story is directly related to the virus, and may seem initially off-putting because of what we just lived through in our COVID reality. But Mickle and the writers masterfully manage to make his story personal and morally involving, as he wrestles with the last scientist alive who can continue to work on a lasting cure, which is necessary to keep his infected wife from fully succumbing to her infection.
Aimee’s character is actually a new addition created just for the series, which helps remix a core storyline in the books that is told from the perspective of another character. It’s a very smart tweak that builds an effective mystery for the audience, culminating in several satisfying reveals towards the end of the season that will satisfy book readers with many surprises. Plus, Ramirez’s understated yet fierce performance stands on its own as an example of the best of humanity that has managed to survive, making her an integral piece of the show’s ultimately hopeful vibe.
There are plenty of details left out of this review so you can discover them without spoilers, but be on the lookout for the performances of Stefania LaVie Owens and Neledi Murray, who add a lot of compassion and grit to the mix as the children of the apocalypse forced to grow up far too fast, but who still manage to be beacons of light.
Despite the on-the-nose elements of the show’s pandemic portrayal, Sweet Tooth is a series worth your time and emotional energy. The creative team has lovingly rendered a fully realized world, utilizing subtle, practical visual effects, gorgeous cinematic landscapes, stellar writing and beautiful performances across the board. Together it makes for one of the best adaptations in recent memory. Plus, the cliffhanger ending already has me starting a prayer circle for Season 2, which is the greatest compliment I bestow on this Sweet Tooth.
Sweet Tooth premieres Friday, June 4th on Netflix
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.