Netflix has lately been met with varying degrees of success with pure genre serial storytelling — shows that dig deep into surreality and find within it some level of heart. These are shows less like “Stranger Things,” which is built to have a broad, near-universally-understandable appeal, than like “The Umbrella Academy,” unapologetically niche.
Within this realm, “Sweet Tooth” is a relatively successful outing. Netflix’s new series assays a world a decade after the so-called “Great Crumble,” a society-restructuring pandemic that coincided with a change in the species. No one knows to what degree, if at all, this shift is related, but all new babies born since the Crumble are hybridized with animals, giving rise to babies with animal features that society is ill-prepared to deal with, despite their cuteness. Young Gus (Christian Convery), a boy with elements of deer including big antlers, had been hiding in the woods with his father (Will Forte); suddenly left on his own, he enters the company of a solo rambler (Nonso Anozie, excellent and gruff) and sets out on an adventure across a ruined, reclaimed America.
The show’s vision of a landscape in the active process of giving itself back to nature is as compelling as its depiction, in flashback, of the social order collapsing can feel rote. And its visual scheme is designed with a careful eye towards keeping us engaged, meaning that each hybrid is lovably adorable in a way that is unchallenging but easy on the eyes. The show isn’t entirely kids’ stuff, though: A subplot about a planned community of survivors who watch paranoiacally for new viral cases was surprisingly chewy, especially coming as it does towards what appears to be the end of a pandemic experience that left psychic scars in our real world. (“Sweet Tooth,” based on a comic book series that began in 2009, filmed its pilot in 2019; its writers’ room took place in part over Zoom post-March 2020.)
This series is certainly not perfect: Narration by James Brolin tends to lean heavily on truisms that tell little worth knowing. The episodes can feel baggily paced. And for a solo adult viewer, Gus’ journey may feel a little predictable in moments. But for the right kind of kid, “Sweet Tooth” might make for good family viewing; there is enough in the way of complication here to keep parents intrigued without sending the show spinning down into pure absurdity for its own sake. The depiction of young people as literally a different species from their elders, fighting for their right to exist in a world that doesn’t understand them, is a somewhat simple metaphor, but it would be churlish to deny its elemental power.
Throughout, the show is made with a surprising degree of curiosity about what changes in society would look like across varying sorts of communities, and with a capacious imagination to boot. And while it envisions a world transformed by illness and pain, “Sweet Tooth” feels fundamentally light of touch and, well, sweet of intention. Its pandemic-riven world has been torn apart, to be sure, and in the wake comes dissension — but kindness and connection, too. Change provides the opportunity for grand-scale reimagining of what life can look like or be, as well as small opportunities to come into one’s own — to find one’s humanity, even when wearing deer antlers.
“Sweet Tooth” debuts June 4 on Netflix.
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