When comic book creator Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth first hit shelves in 2009, the remarkable series about a boy-deer hybrid’s journey across post-apocalyptic rural America earned heaps of praise from critics and casual readers alike, with some describing it as “Mad Max meets Bambi.”
At the time, that seemed like a weird, wonderfully apt way to describe the series, and more than a decade later, it holds just as true — and just as oversimplified — for the Netflix adaptation of Lemire’s comic, which manages to powerfully convey both the heart and the horror of its titular character’s saga.
Developed by Jim Mickle (Hap and Leonard, Stake Land) from Lemire’s series, Sweet Tooth unfolds after the outbreak of a catastrophic virus has broken the world as we know it. As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, the outbreak coincides with the emergence of half-human, half-animal babies as the new normal for births in what remains of civilization.
The series casts young actor Christian Convery as Gus, an innocent hybrid deer-boy whose encounter with a mysterious loner initiates a journey that will bring them both from one end of the country to the other, experiencing the best and worst of this new, desperate world. Along the way, they find themselves pursued by enemies with sinister agendas, and discover allies where they least expect to find them.
Sweet Tooth is a story that was always destined to succeed or fail on the strength of its eponymous lead character, whose affinity for sugary treats not only earns Gus his nickname, but has a habit of getting him into trouble, too. Convery is exceptional in the role, and strikes the perfect balance of innocent naivety and a certainty of his convictions far beyond his years.
It’s difficult not to cheer for Gus, whose infectious optimism offers a ray of light in even the darkest moments of his journey with Jeppard, his massive traveling partner portrayed by Nonso Anozie.
Anozie and Convery have a chemistry that makes their unlikely partnership not only make sense, but feel increasingly sincere as they find themselves relying on each other more frequently in a world gone mad.
Across the series’ first, eight-episode season, Anozie’s performance offers the Game of Thrones and RocknRolla actor plenty of opportunities to show his range, and he manages to wring an impressive amount of emotion from Jeppard’s arc. His character casts a quietly large shadow, but Anozie imbues Jeppard with a depth that makes him almost as fascinating to watch as Gus on their journey.
Gus and other hybrids play a prominent role in the first season, and Netflix clearly invested in making their not-quite-human appearance as plausible as possible. Fuzzy ears, antlers, bushy tails, and wings all move with a natural twitch from one character to the next, but their animal features rarely hide their humanity — a theme the series hammers home as it depicts one “real” human after another acting decidedly inhuman when it comes to hybrid children.
Sadly, Sweet Tooth is at its weakest when the show drifts away from Gus and Jeppard, whose journey is one of several parallel stories that play out across much of the first season.
Award-winning actor Adeel Akhtar (Murdered By My Father, Utopia) portrays a doctor forced to choose between his morality and the search for a cure, while Dania Ramirez (Once Upon a Time, Entourage) plays a woman who finally finds her calling in life as a protector of hybrids. Despite fine performances from both actors, their characters’ arcs never quite generate the same level of emotional investment as Gus’ adventure. Their stories feel secondary to Gus and Jeppard’s quest at best, and at worst, feel all-too-similar to countless other post-apocalyptic tales exploring the depths humanity is capable of sinking to in a lawless world.
Still, even with its shaky secondary arcs, Sweet Tooth is an entertaining — and at times, heart-wrenching — series that expertly balances the lightness and wonder of its titular lead with the darkness around him, as well as both the tremendous beauty and terrifying ugliness of the world in which that saga unfolds. More than just “Mad Max meets Bambi,” Sweet Tooth is a lesson in what it really means to be human, taught by an adorable child who can’t help seeing the good in everyone.
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