Turns out pandemic entertainment is much more appealing when it’s about an adorable deer boy. Netflix’s Sweet Tooth, an adaptation of the Vertigo Comics series written and drawn by Jeff Lemire, follows a 10-year-old deer-human, Gus (Christian Convery), as he makes his way through a world ravaged by two simultaneous, potentially connected crises: A virus has killed off most of the earth’s population, and all new births are half-human hybrids. Gus has lived his entire life in a secluded cabin in Yellowstone National Park, protected by his Pubba (Will Forte), who fled society before its total collapse. A charming coming-of-age story wrapped in postapocalyptic tragedy, Sweet Tooth manages to address its horrific circumstances with tenderness and warmth, inviting viewers to settle into Gus’s home before he triumphantly leaves it.
Sweet Tooth was one of the flagship titles of DC Comics’ now-shuttered mature-readers imprint Vertigo at the end of the aughts and the early 2010s, a period when Vertigo’s popularity was starting to wane. A lot of the imprint’s biggest names were taking their ideas to other independent publishers, but Lemire stayed loyal and signed an exclusive contract with DC, for which he would write multiple superhero series while producing his own creator-owned work for Vertigo. The imprint has seen some significant TV success with adaptations of iZombie, Lucifer, and Preacher, and Netflix in particular has given Vertigo properties a lot of attention, acquiring Lucifer after its broadcast cancellation and developing shows based on Sweet Tooth and The Sandman.
Development on Sweet Tooth began in 2018 when it was originally planned as a Hulu series. It made the jump to Netflix in April 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic started to grow exponentially. This show would have played very differently if it had come out pre-pandemic, and the creative team has a challenge in making a virus-centric narrative engaging to an audience that may not want to be in that headspace. Immediately, the vibrant color palette and James Brolin’s fairy-tale-style narration work together to build a foundation of fantasy as the story introduces a crisis that feels all too real after the past year.
Written and directed by Jim Mickle (Hap and Leonard), Sweet Tooth’s first episode begins by emphasizing the full scope of this narrative, showing a world in flames as the H5-G9 virus spreads. This scenario alone will likely feel triggering to viewers, but the prologue gains a clear emotional arc through Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar). He has an up-close view of the virus, first as a frontline worker and later as the husband of one of its victims. The repetition of Dr. Singh’s routine shows how the chaos grows around him, slowing down only when the show reveals the big fantasy twist in its pandemic plot: All the babies now being born are half-animal hybrids.
This scene strikes the right balance of creepy and cute as it zooms in on the babies, and the special effects do great work maintaining the gentle features and physicality of human babies while introducing the body horror of the animal traits. The bird and porcupine babies are especially unsettling, and I can’t stop thinking about what the labor must have been like for those mothers and their doctors as they witnessed something completely unprecedented. The group shot of the hybrid babies is a powerful image to end the prologue, contrasting the strangeness of the newborns with the pastel-colored normalcy of the hospital nursery, which is reinforced by the grid layout of the cribs. This was a world of structure but not anymore.
Throughout the prologue, we see Pubba making his way out of the city and into the wilderness, and the show’s cinematic budget really shines in its stunning natural vistas. The New Zealand filming location combined with the tale of a boy and his grumpy father figure(s) in the wilderness gives Sweet Tooth strong Hunt for the Wilderpeople vibes, and if you haven’t seen Taika Waititi’s 2016 comedy, check it out for some delightful odd-couple dynamics and gorgeous scenery. Sweet Tooth follows a similar path as that film, getting comfortable in a domestic setting before an unexpected death changes the direction of the story and sends a child into the wilderness with his gruff companion.
The series expands on the relationship between Pubba and Gus, devoting the majority of this first episode to their isolated life together in Yellowstone. Casting Forte as Pubba was a good indicator that Sweet Tooth would have a sense of humor, and he flexes a lot of the same comedic muscles he used in Last Man on Earth, which similarly had him finding levity in the bleakest situations. He has great chemistry with the child actors playing Gus at different ages, and that dynamic gives the impression that their life together has been primarily defined by joy, despite the strict rules Pubba places on his son.
Lemire’s crude, scratchy artistic style in the comics has a spontaneity reminiscent of a child’s doodles, which helps to reinforce Gus’s youthful point of view in a story tackling very mature themes. The live-action Sweet Tooth series can’t replicate that look, but the creative team understands how important it is to root the visuals in Gus’s perspective. When Pubba tells Gus the story of the virus’s spread and the birth of the hybrids, Gus pictures everything in the steam rising from his bathtub and the flames of the nearby fire, which enlivens the exposition while putting the viewer inside Gus’s head.
Gus and Pubba’s comfortable life is disrupted by the arrival of a new human on their perimeter, who is presumably searching the woods for his missing sister. There’s a lot of tension in this encounter as Pubba tries to force the stranger away with his broom-gun while Gus gets closer and closer to exposing himself, and Pubba’s distrust is very much warranted when he discovers their location has been marked for future predators. Pubba hides Gus in a secret chamber under the stairs, attaches a vial of something to his broom, and heads out back to confront the stranger. In maintaining Gus’s point of view, we never see what happens to Pubba in the moments that follow, although we can deduce that he is exposed to H5-G9 during a violent encounter.
This is the point when the Sweet Tooth comic begins, with Pubba in the throes of the Sick while Gus learns how to be independent. Pubba’s deteriorates quickly, and he needs reassurance that Gus will continue to follow the rules after he passes. These scenes are full of sadness, but there’s still room for humor, as when Pubba asks Gus what they start breakfast with and he responds, “A plate?” It’s important to be reminded of Gus’s youthful ignorance because it raises the stakes when he’s left alone after Pubba’s death. Gus tries to maintain the cabin by himself and eventually discovers Pubba’s buried lockbox containing artifacts of his past life, including a picture of a woman he presumes to be his mother.
After lighting a daytime fire in a rage, Gus decides he’s going to leave home and sail down the river to his mother in Colorado. There are a million reasons why this is a bad idea, and before Gus makes much headway, two poachers lure him into their trap with a trail of chocolate bars. We learn Gus is older than the other hybrids, who apparently are mute because everyone is surprised to hear Gus talk. There are a lot of questions about Pubba’s role in the creation of the virus and the hybrids, and this episode makes these mysteries compelling because they are connected to a fully realized relationship.
A Big Man (Nonso Anozie) appears and saves Gus’s life by killing the two poachers, but it’s not clear if he’s a good Samaritan or another hunter. Anozie has an intense screen presence, and he’s filmed in a way that exaggerates his size, making him even more imposing. The episode’s funniest moment comes when Gus runs back home to hide from Big Man. He sets up a makeshift Home Alone–style security system, and when Big Man steps on a trip wire, a small windup toy rolls across the floor, posing absolutely no threat to anyone, baby or adult. Turns out Big Man isn’t a bad man, and he gives Gus important tips on how to survive without drawing attention to himself. He also gives the show its name, calling Gus “Sweet Tooth” because he fell for the candy trap.
In Big Man, Gus sees an opportunity to partner up and take the long journey to Colorado with someone he knows can protect him. He doesn’t just step outside the fence his father forbade him to pass; he runs through it with giddy enthusiasm. Mickle could have chosen to depict Gus’s entry into this dangerous new landscape with a sense of dread but instead leans into the excitement and wonder of experiencing true liberation for the first time. Of Monsters and Men’s “Dirty Paws” is a very literal music cue to play here, but it works to build momentum, starting in a somber mode before heading into a place of propulsive triumph. The majestic landscape shots heighten the feeling of escape, with Gus leaving behind the tight confines of home to discover the full breadth of the natural world’s wonders. It’s a dangerous place for people like him, but there’s no fear in this moment, just the thrill of a new adventure.