In a world decimated by a virus simply labelled ‘the Sick’, the appearance of hybrid babies – those born with human and animal characteristics – has led to many suspicions and theories. What came first… are the hybrids a symptom of the virus’ effects or merely nature’s way of dealing with it? The young fawn-like Gus has been travelling with a human companion Jepperd in hoping of finding answers to his origin and his place in the world. Jepperd was a reluctant guide at first – his past making him the least likely saviour and protector of the young boy – but in their journey they came to rely on each other and learn different ways of seeing the world… some of it beautiful, some of it all too savage.
But now they are separated – Gus is the prisoner of the malevolent General Abbott whose pursuit of a cure to the Sick will make him go to any lengths to achieve that outcome and the power it will bring. He has coerced scientific doctor Aditya Singh to help him, simultaneously giving Singh hope of saving his sick wife. Jepperd looks for old and new allies to help breach Abbot’s defenses such as militant mother-figure Aimee Eden and ‘Bear’, ex-leader of the sympathetic ‘Animal Army’, also carves her own path in search of her lost friends.
But Abbot’s plans are far-ranging and Singh’s moral compromises threaten to consume him… so even if Jepperd, Eden and Bear can reach Gus and the other animal children imprisoned in Abbot’s compound, what will their future look like and who might be sacrificed on the road to a new future?
In this day and age it’s hard to find a series that doesn’t immediately feel like an inferior copy of something else. It’s relatively easy to see and list influences on most productions, especially those in similar genres…but all too often the result is so derivative that it feel less like ‘homage’ and more like ‘rip-off’. It’s entertainment by default and by only a few degrees of separation.
So Sweet Tooth – produced by Team Downey – is one of those rare, true and welcome delights that straddles both lighter fairy-tale elements and also profound and dark, moral dilemmas… not always evenly, but always with a sense of purpose. Yes, you could argue that this odd-couple tale of a big guy protecting a young charge (and vice versa) has common themes with the likes of The Last of Us or The Mandalorian, but it’s worth noting that the first season (broadcast in 2021) came before it was such a regular staple of the schedules. And, for the record, this is one of the few series not starring Pedro Pascal.
A more optimistic, but still nuanced take on the bleaker Vertigo comic tale of the same name (that was created, written and drawn by Canadian Jeff Lemire) Sweet Tooth would have been an easy thing to get very wrong indeed. For every The Last of Us, there’s a multimedia transplant that simply fails to engage in the way as its source material). The often wide chasm between younger and more mature fiction could have meant it fell between the two pillars and satisfied neither camp, but though there are times it leans one way, then the other, Sweet Tooth impressively works and to date I’ve yet to find anyone who hasn’t been mesmerised by the show to date.
It feels like a show not designed for children, but for anyone who was a child and still retains that sense of whimsy mixed with the knowledge that the world can be far more cruel as you get older. If the Brothers Grimm were modern television writers, this is the kind of material they’d be producing: fun, complex, surreal and yet with a real message that can be experienced and appreciated by more than one generation…
Yes, there are moments when you wonder if the series will veer too far in one direction. As we open on the second run, the captive Gus’ fellow inmates are a mixed bag of designs, a combination of animal and child – some characters and their prosthetics almost cross the line too far into cutesy higher almost cosplay concept. The burrowing ‘Bobby’ may be an animatronic success, but it takes a while to defeat an uncanny valley aspect and a feeling he’s escaped from a Jim Henson outreach program. (That being said, the character’s arc is a work in progress and if you aren’t punching the sky concerning his participation by season’s end, you don’t have a heart). On the flipside, just when you feel this could be heading into elementary school territory, something very dark and sinister pulls you back – vivisection, animal cruelty and just abject brutality rear their head. (And, in essence, the opposite is true… when things get too dark, we head back to feel the wind in the willows…). The multi-layering sometimes allows for misdirection and certainly for investment. It feels like a show not designed for children, but for anyone who was a child and still retains that sense of whimsy mixed with the knowledge that the world can be far more cruel as you get older. If the Brothers Grimm were modern television writers, this is the kind of material they’d be producing: fun, complex, surreal and yet with a real message that can be experienced and appreciated by more than one generation.
The casting continues to be one of the series great strengths on both the child and adult levels. In the central role of Gus is Christian Convery an actor who may not have a huge resume but is quickly making his mark – between seasons of Sweet Tooth you’ll have seen him Cocaine Bear. Somehow the story and the lensing of the series has been able to defy the aging process that trips up the process of having a young protagonist aging quicker than the on-screen material and Convery deftly manages to play a young, naive character who is rapidly getting more worldy-wise and dynamic – without losing the innocence that appeals to the story. He’s able to keep up with the adult cast and in key scenes gives them a real run for their money. Nonso Anozie as Tommy ‘Big Man’ Jepperd also brings layer and nuance to a man trying to find redemption for past activities and the decisions he made – albeit in good faith in an effort to find his own family. Jepperd was a star American Football player, fitting his frame, but the series makes you feel every blow he gives or receives in his efforts to find Gus and then keep him safe. Dania Ramirez as Aimee Eden, the woman who keep her charges safe within the confines of the old zoo for so long gives us a character fuelled by both love and rage, determined to save her family of misfits and to wreak holy hell on the people who threaten them. Stefania LaVie Owen brings a charming, determined tomboy charm to activist Bear/’Becca also in search of a way to find and free Gus and explore her own part.
Adeel Akhtar as Dr. Aditya Singh is an interesting character that the audience will feel conflicted about. He’s been a good man, forced to do bad things – mostly in the cause of saving his wife Rani (Aliza Vellani) from ‘the Sick’ that threatens to consume her. But we see as the second season goes on, how he’s starting to delude himself about the moral compromises he’s making, to the point that both Rani becomes repulsed by his decisions and the audience also draws back from sympathy. But it’s dew to the clever and circumspect writing that it’s like watching a slow-motion car-crash of good intentions and compromised ideals and we always want it to swerve away from the darker aspects by the story end. In many ways, it doesn’t swerve and the cost is high. We’ll see Aditya Singh again in the next season, but likely in a far less sympathetic role.
Like any fairytale, there has to be a less-nuanced bad-guy in the mix, and though Neil Sandilands chews the scenery as the crimson-bespectacled General Abbot, there’s something gloriously base and malevolent about the character and his mission. Abbott is very much a megalomaniacal foe, feeding on opportunism and the weakness of others, but the zeal is organic to him and it’s in the series quieter moments when he’s not striding around with ‘Big Bad’ flair that he seems the most genuinely dangerous and driven.
The original source material was darker and less optimistic and ran to just under fifty issues. We now know that there will be a third season of Sweet Tooth which has already been filmed in New Zealand, but which will be the final run. That’s probably a good plan – the measure of darkness and whimsy is a delicate balance and a three season plan for a sweeping story allows all the elements to be sorted. However, when the time comes, one suspects we won’t see anything quite like it again.