Review: SWEET TOOTH, Fairy Tale Dystopia Delivers on Its Post-Apocalyptic Promises
We might be closer to the end than the beginning of a global pandemic, but that won’t stop the steady stream of post-apocalyptic stories set in post-pandemic worlds like Sweet Tooth, a better-than-good, possibly great comic book panel to streaming screen adaptation of writer-artist Jeff Lemire’s brilliant, singular sci-fi/fantasy series for DC’s now defunct Vertigo imprint.
Lemire’s original, 40-issue series ran from 2009-2013 (a Lemire-penned revival began last November), but it’s no less prescient or relevant almost a decade later. Pandemics may come and go, but pandemic-related, post-apocalyptic fairy tales are apparently forever, especially if the stellar Sweet Tooth is any indication. Spoiler alert: It probably is.
Set in a recognizably real, depopulated, overgrown world (a lush, verdant New Zealand standing in for Middle America), Sweet Tooth centers on Gus (Christian Convery), a human-animal hybrid who’s spent the first ten years of life safely sequestered in a fairy-tale forest setting with a survivalist-minded father (Will Forte, The Last Man on Earth) wary of contact with an outside world ravaged by a plague of unknown origin and devastating consequence to the human population. The remaining survivors are split between homo sapiens and human-animal hybrids like Gus, with the former generally suspicious of the latter, often targeting them as figurative and literal scapegoats, blaming hybrids for the pandemic and attempting to eliminate the hybrids as as result.
Co-creators Jim Mickle (In the Shadow of the Moon, Cold in July, Stake Land) and Beth Schwartz (Arrow, DC's Legends of Tomorrow) aren’t particularly shy about leaning into Sweet Tooth’s metaphorical aspects or its real-world analogues. Like Marvel’s X-Men, but without the spandex, capes, or cowls, the human-animal hybrids are feared by those who refuse to understand them or treat them with anything approaching equality. Following Lemire’s lead, Mickle and Schwartz embrace Gus’s oddity and otherness, emphasizing Gus’s nonthreatening, non-predatory appearance at every turn. It’s a smart, clever move since it turns Gus into an all-but irresistible sympathy and empathy magnet.
Mickle and Schwartz, Sweet Tooth’s showrunner, instantly elevate any empathy or sympathy audiences naturally feel for Gus by almost immediately separating Gus from his father. Newly vulnerable and dangerously naive about the outside world and the risks that world presents to hybrids, Gus embarks on a journey, less, at least initially, of self-discovery or redemption (he doesn’t need to be redeemed, though the world he enters might be), but on a geographical one to find a safe space or sanctuary where he can live and grow unencumbered by fear, anxiety, or physical danger.
To that end, Gus eventually joins Tommy "Big Man" Jepperd (Nonso Anozie), a surly loner who initially resists Gus’s presence or his newfound role as Gus’s protector, mentor, and eventually friend. Their relationship, fraught as it is with Jepperd’s reticence and murky motivations, underpins Sweet Tooth’s thematic and narrative concerns.
More importantly, Gus and Jepperd’s relationship gives Sweet Tooth its emotional center, in turn becoming the driving force for everything that follows, from an almost mythical sanctuary for hybrids, the Preserve, that Jepperd may or may not know about, to Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar), a scientist obsessed with finding the source of the plague that almost exterminated humanity and connection to the human-animal hybrids, and the allies and antagonists they discover along the way. Gus, Jepperd, and Singh’s paths eventually converge, with Singh taking a borderline obsessive interest in Gus and Gus's mysterious origins.
It doesn’t take much effort to see the influence of Sweet Tooth’s post-apocalyptic predecessors on story, character, and world-building like, for example the recent rebooted Planet of the Apes series, but to be fair, Lemire’s comic-book series was conceived, written, and illustrated before the rebooted Ape series arrived in multiplexes. Influences on both, of course, can be traced back to further to George Romero’s Dead series and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, something of an ur-text in post-apocalyptic fiction. Turning genre conventions and expectations ironically on their respective heads, Matheson rewrote the survivalist hero into an unintentional villain, driven by rigid, ideological ideas about human nature into violence and murder. The hero wasn’t a hero, but a monster with a human face, an idea central to every post-apocalyptic tale that followed, including Sweet Tooth.
Like the rebooted Planet of the Apes series, however, Sweet Tooth isn’t about its human characters except as supporting or even marginalized figures, pushing Gus and other human-animal hybrids into the foreground. That also puts whoever plays Gus front-and-center, a potentially daunting task for any actor, but especially one for a preteen performer.
Luckily, when Mickle and Schwartz selected Christian Convery to play Gus, they chose well. As Gus, Convery delivers a convincing, nuanced, and subtlety-filled performance, making it all the easier to not just follow Gus’s journey, but root for him every step of the long and winding way.
Sweet Tooth is now streaming on Netflix.