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Netflix’s Sweet Tooth is a Tender, Riveting Adventure Story

With source material written before the pandemic and a production that began life pre-COVID as well, Netflix’s brilliant “Sweet Tooth” may not be a direct commentary on what the world has been through in the last year, but the presence of that real-world echo is undeniable. It’s a show about a devastating virus that leads people to distrust one another, go into hiding, allow their fear to drive their decisions, and ultimately form unexpected bonds. It’s about isolation and grief, but it is also very much about the unpredictable connections that can end up defining us. It’s intense, riveting storytelling that recalls the spirit of Amblin almost more than the nostalgia warehouse that is “Stranger Things,” the king of Netflix Originals. It would have been excellent television in any year, but "Sweet Tooth" strikes a different chord in 2021 than anyone could have expected.

The great Jim Mickle (“We Are What We Are,” “Cold in July”) co-created “Sweet Tooth” (with Beth Schwartz) and directs the riveting premiere (along with a few more episodes throughout the eight-episode first season). Based on the beloved comic series by Jeff Lemire, “Sweet Tooth” is a vision of a population-changing pandemic that destroys humanity as we know it while also bringing forth the next step in human evolution. The planet is divided as to whether or not they were a cause of the pandemic or a product of it but children start to become born who aren’t exactly human, more hybrids of our species and others from throughout nature. The hybrid children became enemies, hunted down and killed, if they’re lucky, experimented on if they’re not.

The protagonist of “Sweet Tooth” (the title is a nickname for his character) is the charming Gus (Christian Convery, giving one of the best TV child performances in years), a deer/human hybrid who has been kept in hiding by his father (Will Forte). Trained on how to survive in isolation, apart from a world that wants him dead, the opening scenes of “Sweet Tooth” echo “Hanna” in the narrative of a unique child kept in secrecy. The show will likely also draw comparisons to “The Road” and even “The Walking Dead,” but this is no streaming mimic—"Sweet Tooth" has a strong, rich personality of its own that may have been inspired by other works of art but stands on its own as well.

The simple life of Gus and his father is shattered in the premiere, sending our sweetheart protagonist on a journey to try and find his mother. All he has of her is a photo—and she’s recognizably Amy Seimetz—with the words R.R. Colorado on it, and so he goes to that state to find her. His unexpected traveling companion is a gentle giant named Tommy (the phenomenal Nonso Anozie), who once served in a violent military group named The Last Men, hunters of hybrids and anyone who hides them.

“Sweet Tooth” is divided into three arcs. The primary one is the journey of Tommy, Gus, and an eventual third traveler, a fighter named Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen), a young person who believes the hybrids are a positive form of evolution and has tried to protect them. Meanwhile, Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar) is handed a potential cure for the pandemic that is still ravaging the country, but it could come at the cost of his moral center. Adding pressure to his research is the fact that his wife Rani (Aliza Vellani) has the disease, which the two are trying to hide from the neighborhood. The season’s darkest moment unfolds in episode three, when it’s revealed what happens in this suburban utopia when someone starts showing symptoms. At the same time, we’re introduced to Aimee (Dania Ramirez), who runs a safe space for hybrids, at great risk to her own personal safety. And the legendary James Brolin narrates the whole thing with a Sam Elliott-esque gravitas that really adds to the modern fable tone of the affair.

While most of these characters don’t intersect for the majority of the season, Mickle’s story sense is seamless and fluid. He doesn’t overplay his themes, allowing them to emerge across the multiple plotlines in a way that elevates the entire production, and none of this eight-episode season succumbs to the bloat or repetition that so often sinks the Netflix Original. The performances are strong throughout—Anozie is particularly remarkable—but it’s the consistently inventive writing and robust filmmaking that makes the project stand out. It’s heartfelt and fantastical at the same time, bringing us to a world very different from our own but with characters who have relatable concerns and emotions. The craft is also remarkable throughout with a great score from the excellent Jeff Grace, a regular Mickle collaborator, and cinematography that embraces the natural world with soft greens and whites. It’s a beautiful show.

How far would you go to survive? How far would you go to make sure the people close to you survived? How much would you give up morally to save yourself or a loved one? Questions of sacrifice, isolation, and now reconnection will echo in Summer 2021 in ways that we never could have imagined, but I think “Sweet Tooth” would have been major TV before COVID too. It’s a show about how personal connections can both endanger and inspire us, an old-fashioned “makeshift family” adventure story that feels both incredibly current and yet timeless in its structure, style, and emotion. "Sweet Tooth" ends on a series of cliffhangers that might lead some to criticize this season as being more set-up or prologue than the best of television, but it’s a minor complaint for a show that I truly hope ends up being as major as it deserves to be.

Whole season screened for review.


Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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