A show about a child who is part deer, complete with antlers and twitchy deer ears, is not meant to be taken too seriously. In case we forget that, Sweet Tooth reminds us with the introduction of other children in animal make-up of varying degrees of absurdity, and, if we still have not got the message, with an animatronic groundhog who looks as if he has come straight out of Caddyshack.
The reminders are necessary because it is all too easy to find oneself investing emotionally in Sweet Tooth and its characters. They have more humanity - a major theme - and more heart than most of the contrived characterisations in supposedly more prestigious drama these days. This is the secret of the success of this cheaply produced "Post-Apocalyptic" drama based on a fairly obscure "comic book" series. At the same time, the bleakness of its subject matter keeps it from lapsing into sentimentality.
This is a spoiler light, not spoiler free, overview of the first season. The story begins, topically, with a pandemic - the series was actually filmed by special permission in New Zealand when that nation was practically isolated in response to the coronavirus. In this case, the pandemic, known as "the Sick," is on a Black Death level. There is no cure. People panic. At first there is some attempt to treat the infected, but later they are simply killed and burnt, not necessarily in that order. So are "hybrids," human children with animal characteristics, who begin to appear around the same time and are therefore blamed - without any evidence - for spreading "the Sick." Some are used in medical experiments first.
This is dark stuff, not least because it seems all too credible. So is the way that this leads to "the Great Crumble," a total collapse of the economy, government, organised society, and - horror of horrors - the internet. Most of the events in the drama take place about a decade after "the Great Crumble." By this stage, a basic level of order has been imposed by the self-appointed General Abbot and his army of "Last Men," but anarchy prevails in most places, and all live in fear of a new wave of "the Sick."
The first season adopts the fashionable structure of starting with several separate strands or plotlines which are obviously destined to interweave as the story unfolds. The main one, centred on our deer boy, Gus (Christian Convery), begins as the tale of a caring father who decides to protect his son by taking him out into the wilderness of Yellowstone to live in solitude, safe from prejudice against "hybrids" and from the effects of "the Great Crumble." At least that is the tale we are given - at first. Things are not necessarily as they seem in Sweet Tooth.
At around the age of ten, and poorly prepared, Gus finds himself alone. Almost killed by hunters, he is rescued by a man harder than they are, Jepperd (Nonso Anozie). Having done so, the last thing the wanderer Jepperd wants to do is hang out with a child. However, we all know what happens when a gruff loner wants nothing to do with a cute kid. Gus is a charmer. As well as the vulnerability of an innocent child, he has the appeal of an innocent animal - Bambi no less. His animatronic ears alone would make anyone feel protective. They have a life of their own.
Jepperd's unwanted family is later increased by the addition of Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen), the unlikely leader of a very unlikely community of teenaged "hybrid" rights militants, the Animal Army. Without visible means of support, the Animal Army are shown living a very agreeable lifestyle in the middle of nowhere, taking on "Last Men" successfully because they, er, "train" a lot on video games. This is pandering shamelessly to the "young adult" market and actually manages to detract from the credibility of a show whose principal protagonist is half deer.
Talking of unsought families, in another thread, a jaded therapist called Aimee (Dania Ramirez) has embraced the opportunity of "the Great Crumble" to give up her superficial lifestyle. She enjoys a more authentic life, happily alone in an abandoned zoo, until a "hybrid" is literally left on her doorstep. Others follow, including Bobby, the delightful remote controlled puppet groundhog who steals the whole show. He should be ridiculous but when one of the very few words he utters is "scared" it is impossible not to care for him and hope that he will be all right. We have been manipulated shamelessly and we know it - and we are fine with it by this point.
The theme of family takes a different turn in the third thread. Dr Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar) is faced with an impossible moral choice: experiment on "hybrid" children or lose the woman he loves. It has to be said that the woman in question, his wife, Rani (Aliza Vellani), becomes a lot less loveable when she is the one urging him to become Dr Mengele, but it is the nature of family to prioritise itself over outsiders. It could in theory be argued that the experiments sacrifice a few for the sake of the many if they result in a cure for "the Sick," but we are already looking at the situation from the point of the few, the "hybrids." If there is any doubt in the matter, a brief shot of a "hybrid" child about to be dissected should settle it. Once again, Sweet Tooth is not afraid to go to some very dark places.
In other respects, it pulls its punches. As usual, "Post-Apocalyptic" is heavily sanitised for television. Indeed, there is an unwillingness to engage with what "Apocalyptic" really means. We have seen the severe disruption caused by the pandemic of 2020, which, viewed with cold objectivity, increased the natural death rate by only about 0.1% of the population in most places with reasonable healthcare. We have also seen a breakdown of civilisation in a modern city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. From there, it is not difficult to extrapolate what mass fatalities, resulting in a total collapse of supply chains, public services, government, law and order, communications, and the power grid, might mean in practice.
Gus and Aimee and the Animal Army would not have been left alone to enjoy their idyllic lifestyles. Most people keep enough food only for a few days in their homes and most shops use "just in time" stock management systems. There is therefore little surplus food stored in most Western nations. Within weeks, millions of starving people would be covering every inch of ground, even inaccessible wilderness, in a desperate search for something to eat. In the absence of functioning authority, they would steal and kill to survive. Wildlife would be hunted practically to extinction. Cannibalism would be the norm within months. Some might survive long enough to plant some crops and defend them until harvest, but they would be few in number and their ability to do so would be another matter. Those who succeeded would most likely be people with firearms and absolutely no qualms about using them.
They would not be the sort of people who had any illusions of "protecting" children by withholding information crucial to their survival about the dangers of their situation. Yet that is what practically every adult in Sweet Tooth tries to do, including the hardened Jepperd - with the predictable result that the children get themselves and others into avoidable trouble. This is quite irritating.
Almost as irritating is seeing people like the Singh’s enjoying a "Post-Apocalyptic" lifestyle barely distinguishable from the comfortable suburban existence they had before. While the reality might be too depressing for television (Terry Nation's Survivors is probably as close as it can get without becoming unwatchable), and there is a Stepford underside to the Singhs' enclave, the implication that current "normal" life might continue in such circumstances is almost as ludicrous as the whole Animal Army setup. This matters because a fantasy requires that the non-fantastical elements should be well grounded in order to sell the fantastical elements.
If such enclaves were possible, they would require the protection of an army like Abbot's. Yet Abbot (Neil Sandilands) and his men are portrayed simply as disagreeable villains, as the warlords who would arise in such situations always are in films and television productions. The reality is that people like them would be necessary for the re-establishment of even a basic standard of living in those circumstances. While some might be no more than robber barons, those who realised that it was in their own interests to rebuild a functioning economy and society would prevail over time. Abbot therefore has at least a defensible point of view - perhaps even in his "ends justifies means" attitude to finding a cure for "the Sick" - and it might have been interesting to see that rather than reduce him to a caricature Bad Guy.
In addition to these conceptual criticisms, Sweet Tooth has weaknesses in other departments. Some of the effects shots are very poor. New Zealand, a beautiful country in its own right, is obviously not Yellowstone or Colorado. Apart from Anozie, the cast has no familiar faces - even if there is a familiar voice in James Brolin's unseen and anonymous narrator.
The last weakness may in fact be a strength. The absence of "stars" makes it easier to see the characters and the whole cast commits completely to their roles. Anozie is a great John Wayne figure, especially when there are hints that, like the best John Wayne characters, Jepperd is by no means an altogether pleasant man, which makes his choosing to do the right thing all the more meaningful. Convery is a delight in what could very easily have been an obnoxious brat role. As it is, his wide eyed wonder at the world is infectious.
They are so likeable that, for all its shortcomings, Sweet Tooth lures us in. Silly as it can be, it is at heart a fairly thought-provoking meditation on the themes of what it is to be human and how part of that is being part of a family, the point being that neither humanity nor family is necessarily what we might assume. The season ends on a cliffhanger, but also with the possibility that what we hope will become an extended family, incorporating Aimee and the "hybrids" that have been in her care, will get together in the next season. It is a great relief at the time of writing that Season Two has now been commissioned.
Review: John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of ‘How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon. John has also written over 100 reviews for Television Heaven.
John's Website can be found here: John Winterson Richards
Published on November 21st, 2021. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.