Sweet Tooth Season 1 Review - Sweet Like Caramel

Jun 13, 2021
Netflix poster for Sweet Tooth showing Gus (Christian Convery) and Jepperd (Nonso Anozie) travelling along abandoned rail tracks

Comic book adaptations are a mixed bag, aren't they? I mean... you know where you are with super hero movies and shows, some are great, some miss the mark, but we have benchmarks, a shared understanding of what we can expect, but the more individual the source material, the greater the anxiety over the practicalities of bringing the panels we've come to love to life. Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth must be at the apex of the stress inducers: a novel story, with kids and animals, heart and ethical strength, all rendered, on paper at least, in Lemire's absolutely unmistakable artistic style - and it is completely unique. I had found it hard to imagine how Gus and Jepperd would appear in live action, having loved them in Lemire's 'opposite-of-photorealistic' work but, ah, the relief - I absolutely need not have worried. Superb writing and direction, a talented cast and the kind of scenery which has me hankering for travel - the live action version of Lemire's beautiful source is just as sweet, satisfying and habit forming as the candy bar bait Gus is a sucker for.

For those who aren't familiar with the original (and whether you are or not, James' homage to it is well worth your time), Sweet Tooth is the story of Gus (Christian Convery), a human-deer hybrid, and Jepperd (played by Nonso Anozie, spelled 'Jeppard' in the comics), the poacher-turned-rescuer who reluctantly accompanies Gus on his travels. A deadly virus has engulfed mankind, killing swiftly and almost unavoidably, and animal hybrid children, who appeared the world over simultaneously with the pandemic, are feared and hunted down, thought to be the source of the disease. Gus is the Sweet Tooth of the title, a nickname given to him by the gruff and detached Jepperd, when he discovers that Gus, who has lived most of his live in hiding in remote woods with his father (Will Forte), cannot resist a candy bar, and would drink a full bottle of syrup given the chance.

The relationship between reluctant protector Jepperd and naïve but determined Gus is the centrepiece of the story and its journey is developed beautifully, Gus gradually healing Jepperd's damage, and Jepperd gently guiding Gus through the devastating revelations his escape from the safety of the woods leads him to. Jim Mickle, credited with the development of the series, writes and directs several of the episodes, but it's interesting to note that eight writers and four directors are credited across the eight episodes: knowing this now, I'm amazed at how consistent the episodes are, this must have been a tightly managed team.

...and speaking of episodes, recent releases of Marvel series on Disney+, eked out in weekly bursts of socially shareable excitement, have given me renewed appreciation for that pattern of consumption of TV shows. Like Gus when finding Jepperd's stash of candy, I found myself unable to stop the binge and powered through six episodes in an evening. This show is irresistible, and I found myself astonished that I'd polished off all eight episodes and, frankly, a bit disgusted with myself for my lack of self control! Each instalment is a delicious caramel-coated apple, sharp and tasty and impossible to put down.
 
Pubba and Gus

The production design and effects are fantastic - the hybrid children are artfully created, something which could easily have looked fake and silly is fully convincing, to the point where, in one episode, when Jepperd tries to make Gus's ears and antlers look like a fancy dress costume so he can pass unnoticed - and I found myself thinking "Nah, they'll never fall for that, they're too real looking". In another, a 'real' boy, who has never seen a hybrid up close before, expresses what was in my subconscious when he asks if he can touch Gus's ears, "Are they soft?" Convery plays his part to perfection, at times expressive and sensitive, fearful and wary and then full of frustration and exhausted anger, and his ears play along, amplifying his feelings to the viewer.

Jepperd and amazing scenery

Filmed in New Zealand, the series locations are, with no apology for the cliché, breathtaking - the pause in filming due to NZ's pandemic restrictions delayed the series' release but the result is entirely worth waiting for, stunning vistas of mountains, waterfalls and huge landscapes adding the sense of hugeness to the quest Gus and Jepperd embark on. The sense of Canadian-ness imbued by Lemire in the source material remains visible throughout though - not least where his trademark checked shirts bedeck multiple characters.

Not unexpectedly, there are variations from the source: some additional characters broaden the focus, I think in a way that strengthens rather than dilutes the theme of the story. Each character has their own arc, a development which sees them change, in our eyes, through redemption, growth, understanding or grief. No one is the same as our original view of them by the end.
The Animal Army - four people in stylised animal costumes

The character of the doctor, Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar), is given more sympathetic motivation, and his story, along with his wife's, runs parallel to the main theme in a way that helps us understand more about how the world has come to be in the position its in. Aimee Eden (Dania Ramirez) is a TV-only character, a therapist turned protector of hybrids. 'Bear' (Stefania LaVie Owen) becomes Gus and Jepperd's close companion, and the terrible story of her life unfolds later. The only wholly unsympathetic characters are the murderous Last Men, those who seek to eradicate the hybrids because they fear they are causing the spread of the virus - it's interesting that although Lemire's series was written well before the coronavirus pandemic, the themes of denial, fear and misplaced blame feel very familiar.

My shock at reaching the end of the series (like suddenly finding the biscuit tin is empty when I thought I'd only had a couple) was deep: threads are left hanging, there is so much more story to be told. I'm raising a glass of maple syrup to the possibility of further series then - here's to more from Sweet Tooth, I know I can't get enough of it.
 
Sweet Tooth Season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix.

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