MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD … AND GLORIOUSLY EXCESSIVE SUGAR CONSUMPTION AND TOY DOG MONITORING …
Watching a must-see series about the near-end of the world caused by a virulent flu-like disease at a time when the world is still struggling to get on top of a virulent flu-like disease must seem like the weirdest kind of masochistic idiocy.
And yet, the confronting nature of the driving reason why the world has fallen into lawless, ruinous despair aside, Sweet Tooth, based on the graphic novel by Jeff Lemire, turns out to be a transparent beacon of hope that even in the very worst of times, and the times in this Netflix series are about as bad as things get, humanity is capable of some pretty amazing and downright wonderful acts.
Examples surprisingly abound in a world where civilisation is hanging on by a thread with trains running but only sporadically, government near to non-existent and militias in unfortunate multitudinous abundance and Neighbourhood Watch groups now having more in common with the Stasi than any notion of mutual safekeeping.
One shining example of the selfless goodness than can rise to the top even when everything is crumbling into ragged history – in fact, the end of the world as we know it is called the Great Crumble, which is apt and very much in keeping with the sugary lyrical obsession of this most warmhearted of brutally dark series – is Pubba (Will Forte), who we later find out is called Richard Fox, who ends up caring for the eponymous protagonist of the title with little to no warning.
His charge, thrust into his arms by a scientist at work known as Birdie (Amy Seimetz) he has only just met – although they shared a killer first date in a pub which could have easily blossomed into something longer lasting and special – is a hybrid kid named Gus (Christian Convery), part human and part deer, the result of an engineered virus at a lab in Colorado who, along with successive others of his kind, are being hunted down by vigilante militia convinced that these innocent, possible next step in humanity’s evolution brought the virus about in the first place.
That hatred-filled garbage of course, but when has logic and reason ever stopped pitchfork and torch-carrying mindless mobs in their tracks?
People, the unthinking ones of course, always need an easy scapegoat and simplistic, easily-digestible answers, and Gus and his kindred (all children born after the virus starts are born as hybrids with parents either unconditionally accepting or not) provide easy, innocent targets who, by and large, cannot fight back.
So the risks that Pubba takes to keep Gus safe out in the wilds of Yellowstone National Park are the work of a good and kind man who gives up everything to keep this baby away from those that most certainly mean him grievous harm and typical of a number of key characters in Sweet Tooth who, like dissenters of authoritarian rule and evil bigotry befor them, take considerable risk to keep Gus safe.
Pubba, as Gus calls him, goes all out to craft him homemade books – he is an amateur artist who only fulfills his creative calling when the world has no more choice for the children’s books he is constantly toying with writing – to make him a toy dog out of stuffed socks (Dog is someone you come to love with an intensity and longing matching Gus, proof of how well written this gloriously good series is) and to keep him clothed and fed all while teaching the kind of critical life skills the young boy will need in a vastly-changed world.
While there is a Big Bad of epically-bearded proportions in General Abbot (Neil Sandilands) whose Last Men are out to expunge hybrids from the face of the earth while ensuring they and they along control any cure that might be found by the likes of well-meaning but stricken doctor, Aditya Singh (who is keeping his wife alive thanks to a partial treatment cooked up by a colleague), it is people like Pubba, Aimee Eden (Dania Ramirez), who has her own adopted hybrid charge in half-human, half-pig Wendy (Naledi Murray), and Gus’s eventual companions Tommy Jepperd (Nonso Anozie) and Bear aka Becky (Stefania LaVie Owen) who really make Sweet Tooth shine.
Make no mistake – the blighted, apocalyptic world of Sweet Tooth is dark, brutal and frightening and there’s no attempt to pretend otherwise.
But the great strength and joy of this wholly-engaging series, which brims with hope and heartfelt humanity and a certain whimsical magicality, is that it elevates love and selflessness as key plays in an end of the world drama.
It’s a marked step away from many apocalyptic shows such as The Walking Dead which are content to endlessly parade and glory in the soul-destructive misery of broken souls doing whatever they have to survive and which prefer to focus on hopelessness and violence over tenacity and self-sacrifice.
Sweet Tooth, developed by Jim Mickle, is a magnificent departure from this very limited storytelling style, one long embedded in apocalyptic narratives, because it chooses to see love, selflessness and giving beyond measure as acts of muscular tenacity and not gestures of weak people soon to be slaughtered for their kindness.
It near shouts from the pine ridges and lofty vantage points of a landscape now increasingly returned to nature except for where humanity continues to play act that civilisation as it once was can be sustained and returned in defiance of all evidence to the contrary, that giving of yourself in service to someone else, someone else you love such as Gus, who is the unplanned and unwitting face of the hybrids, is not weakness but fierce, world-changing strength.
Thus it tackles the vengeful bigotry and blind selfishness of the violent hordes such as those commanded by General Abbot not with counter violence and brutality but with acts of incredible bravery and love that end up, by end of the first season’s eight episodes, powerfully underscoring how darkness can always be overcome with light.
It might sound trite and light, the act of an unimaginative greeting card writer looking for cheap-and-easy inspiration, but in every last gripping and emotionally-rich episode of Sweet Tooth it rises up and comes across as a stirring call to never give up, even when it seems there is little hope of anything phoenix-like rising from the ashes.
Gus and the accidental and oft times reluctant family he creates around him in Jepperd and Bear, by sheer dint of innocent enthusiasm and unconditional love which expects everyone to treat him like Pubba, is the joyful and yes, at times, frightened centre of this beautifully uplifting show which takes you on a grand and compelling and sometimes very dark adventure into the yawning chasm of the end of the world and finds, against all expectations, that there yet be something worth hanging onto and celebrating.
While there is no words on a second series just yet, Sweet Tooth most assuredly deserves one, delivering apocalyptic thrills and scares and unnerving sense of that way we may yet go balanced with selfless, caring humanity, the kind that redefines love and reminds of how powerfully transformative it can be.