Netflix’s brilliant “Sweet Tooth” may not be a direct commentary on what the world has been through in the last year, but the presence of that real-world echo is undeniable. It’s a show about a devastating virus that leads people to distrust one another, go into hiding, allow their fear to drive their decisions, and ultimately form unexpected bonds. It’s about isolation and grief, but it is also very much about the unpredictable connections that can end up defining us. It’s intense, riveting storytelling that recalls the spirit of Amblin almost more than the nostalgia warehouse that is “Stranger Things,” the king of Netflix Originals. It would have been excellent television in any year, but "Sweet Tooth" strikes a different chord in 2021 than anyone could have expected.
Sweet Tooth begins 10 years after an event the characters refer to as The Great Crumble, a possibly connected series of occurrences that included the global spread of a deadly virus and the mass birth of so-called hybrids, children born with a mixture of human and animal parts. The combination of global tragedy and undermining of confidence in the future of pure-blooded humanity tore society apart in ways these first eight episodes only begin to depict.
The production design elicits awe and wonders from the fairy tale shelter where Gus begins his journey into the sprawling countryside that makes this world feel larger than life. Even when it’s not so small in reality, Gus is the gravitational core for which all orbiting plot threads and stories eventually converge in some way. That includes Aimee (Dania Ramirez) opening her heart and home to the unwanted, Dr. Singh (Adeel Akhtar) struggling with morals in attempts to cure his ailing wife, and the ruthless General Abbott (Neil Sandilands) restoring order by any means necessary. The latter proves the weakest link, unable to break free from the confines of conventional, bland baddie. Luckily, it’s easily overlooked the more our protagonists develop and confront their flaws.
Outside of Gus and his cadre of do-gooders, “Sweet Tooth” isn’t afraid to show the post-apocalypse bitter truths. There is still an army of humans, dubbed The Last Men, led by a gleefully evil General Abbot (Neil Sandilands), that is on the hunt for hybrid children to use for experimentation…or just extermination. And Abbot, who is seemingly devoid of any semblance of emotional connection to anyone but himself, uses love and optimism as a weapon against his enemies, particularly in the case of Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar) and his wife Rani (Aliza Vellani), who is put in the unenviable position of trying to develop a cure for a flu-like virus that wiped out millions and still threatens people every day. Moral questions abound as Dr. Singh has to reckon with what he’s willing to do to help humanity and his own family, with no clear-cut right or wrong answers.
While most of these characters don’t intersect for the majority of the season, Mickle’s story sense is seamless and fluid. He doesn’t overplay his themes, allowing them to emerge across the multiple plotlines in a way that elevates the entire production, and none of this eight-episode season succumbs to the bloat or repetition that so often sinks the Netflix Original. The performances are strong throughout—Anozie is particularly remarkable—but it’s the consistently inventive writing and robust filmmaking that makes the project stand out. It’s heartfelt and fantastical at the same time, bringing us to a world very different from our own but with characters who have relatable concerns and emotions. The craft is also remarkable throughout with a great score from the excellent Jeff Grace, a regular Mickle collaborator, and cinematography that embraces the natural world with soft greens and whites. It’s a beautiful show.
Filmed in New Zealand, Sweet Tooth is epic in scale, its awe-inspiring landscapes juxtaposed with abandoned structures, and suburban enclaves barricaded against the Sick. It's the latter where the series feels the most immediate, and the most uncomfortable, with the Singhs and their neighbors going to chilling lengths to keep their community safe (you'll never think of "Auld Lang Syne" the same way again). Co-showrunner Jim Mickle was in the middle of writing the season's scripts in March 2020, as the United States began its COVID-19 shutdown, and it shows.
Finally, Sweet Tooth is a tough concept to adapt. Not just because of the subject matter and characters but also because of the number of special effects work that goes into bringing animal hybrids to life. It’s that note that makes this series all the more striking. Blending practical effects work that looks real and CGI work that is nearly indistinguishable from non-special effects. While the characters aren’t one-hundred percent on the mark, they get as close to it as you can with live-action. With the actors beneath the make-up, mainly children, pushing the prosthetics and other elements to a resounding success. Additionally, the way the series uses narration is sparingly enough to hold weight every time we hear it, with Brolin’s booming voice making bringing even more emotion to moments and setting the tone for each episode.
When all is said and done, Sweet Tooth is a success. It’s a near-perfect adaptation. It’s strong when it comes to effects work, acting, and story. Christian Convery and Nonso Anozie are a phenomenal pair and strong on their own as well. While it does change elements of Lemire’s series, every change has a reason for the larger story of the series, which makes it hard to be mad. That said, Sweet Tooth needs a Season 2 for it this season’s ending to not feel empty.
Final Score – [9/10]
Reviewed by – Ritika Kispotta
Follow her @KispottaRitika on Twitter (https://twitter.com/KispottaRitika)
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