Sweet Tooth Netflix series Jeff Lemire about fatherhood, being a parent, growing up

Adapted from writer and artist Jeff Lemire’s Vertigo comic book, Sweet Tooth is the story of a young boy named Gus (Christian Convery). The series unfolds in the aftermath of a global apocalypse caused by a virus known as “the sick,” which corresponded with the birth of a generation of “hybrids” that are half-human and half-animal. Gus is a little boy who resembles a deer, with distinctive ears and antlers that protrude from his mess of hair.

Sweet Tooth draws from the familiar framework of post-apocalyptic thrillers. The show’s cast includes familiar archetypes. Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar) is a survivor desperately trying to protect his infected wife Rani (Aliza Vellani). General Douglas Abbot (Neil Sandilands) is the leader of the so-called “Last Men,” a militia group positioning itself as a dominant social and political power in the wasteland. The show is punctuated with flashbacks to the time before the end of the world.

However, Sweet Tooth consistently frames these elements in such a way as to invoke classic fairy tales. The series is dictated by an unseen narrator, voiced by James Brolin, who invests every episode with a folksy life lesson about the nature of the world. Introducing the audience to various cast members, the narrator consciously positions the adventure as a story being told. “Some stories start at the beginning,” the narrator states, a line repeated several times. “Our story begins here.”

Gus lives an idyllic life alone in the forest with his Pubba (Will Forte), who has instilled in the young boy both a restless optimism and a fear of the outside world. Pubba has written and illustrated stories for his young son, drawing from classics like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Velveteen Rabbit to create his own custom children’s books. The two have created a world for themselves in Yellowstone National Park.

Sweet Tooth Netflix series Jeff Lemire about fatherhood, being a parent, growing up

The world of Sweet Tooth occasionally feels like something lifted from a classic children’s story. The hybrid children sometimes feel like a live-action take on the classic anthropomorphic animals found in Disney cartoons, especially the more distinctive characters like Bobby. With nature reclaiming the ruins left by man, Sweet Tooth has an enchanted quality. The whole world is a magical forest. An entire subplot takes place within a zoo that has been reclaimed, its animals set free.

At several points, Sweet Tooth directly alludes to classic children’s stories. The fourth episode, “Secret Sauce,” has Gus encountering a group of feral children living in an abandoned amusement park as a post-apocalyptic riff on the Lost Boys from Peter Pan by way of, well… The Lost Boys. In the next episode, “What’s in the Freezer?,” Gus journeys into a field of strange flowers with hallucinatory properties that recalls one of the most distinctive scenes in The Wizard of Oz.

Even the central horror in Sweet Tooth is lifted directly from a classic fairy tale, with Abbot kidnapping children to experiment on them in the hope of finding a cure to the sick, a science-fiction spin on the archetypal fear that children would be “gobbled up” by predators in stories like Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood. At one point, Abbot is even labeled a “monster,” and his distinctive red sunglasses (lifted from the comic) make it look like what big eyes he has.

Sweet Tooth uses these fairy tale trappings to great effect. The show invites the audience to see the world through the eyes of Gus, who has lived a sheltered existence largely shaped by the stories that Pubba told him. The fairy tale aesthetic allows the audience to share in Gus’ wonder and confusion, nudging the show gently into the realm of magical realism. There is a pseudo-rational explanation for everything that happens, but the world is heightened enough that it still feels like magic.

More to the point, Sweet Tooth uses these fairy tale elements in service of its core themes. It is by now cliché to point out that many classic fairy tales were closer to horror stories than the magical fantasies codified through decades of Disney adaptations. However, those horror stories served a purpose. They allowed parents to talk to children in allegory, to frame real threats and horrors in abstract terms that made them safe to discuss and explore.

“Fairy tales give children a way, through stories that are safely set apart from themselves, to understand some of the really confusing and difficult feelings that they can’t yet articulate for themselves,” argues child psychologist Sally Goddard Blythe. The big bad wolf is a metaphor for all sorts of trauma. This isn’t exclusive to children. It has been suggested that historical accounts of werewolves were simply attempts to make sense of grisly serial killers.

Appropriately enough, Sweet Tooth is a story about its own set of fears. Although the audience perspective aligns with Gus, with the series framed as a magical fantasy story narrated to us, many of the key characters are adults. As befitting these sorts of stories, Gus embarks upon an epic and literal journey across the American wilderness. However, the first season’s biggest emotional journey belongs to his traveling companion, Tommy Jepperd (Nonso Anozie).

Tommy stumbles across Gus after the death of Pubba. Convinced that his mother (Amy Seimetz) is waiting for him in Colorado, Gus decides to travel with Tommy. Tommy is reluctant to take the boy into his care. Tommy repeatedly tries to offload Gus on to anybody who will take the child, plotting to leave him with another family in “Sorry About All the Dead People” and hoping to put him on a train by himself in “Weird Deer S**t.” Naturally, Tommy can never quite abandon Gus.

It’s through Tommy that the central themes of Sweet Tooth come into focus. Before the apocalypse, Tommy was a footballer. The season finale includes a flashback of Tommy driving his pregnant wife to the hospital to deliver their child. The child is a hybrid. Tommy panics. He runs away. He comes to his senses soon enough, but by the time he returns it is too late. Both his wife and his son have vanished. It’s clear that this loss haunts Tommy, and it defines his relationship with Gus.

Sweet Tooth is a story about parental anxiety. Jeff Lemire has acknowledged that his experience as a father has shaped a lot of his work, confessing, “I don’t think I could have written and drawn those books the way I have if I weren’t a father myself when I started them.” Indeed, Lemire has noted that he began doodling the character that would become Gus when his wife was pregnant with their first child, serving as “a metaphor for (his) own fears of this world that (his) son would grow up in.”

This theme naturally carries over to the streaming series. “(W)hen I read the comic book and learned that Jeff wrote this about his experience with fatherhood, I had just had a baby myself, who was about six months old,” explains producer Beth Schwartz. “And so I completely connected to this idea of wanting to shelter your child from the dangers of the big bad world.” The series leans into this. The sixth episode is even titled “Stranger Danger on a Train,” referencing a classic parental anxiety.

Sweet Tooth is populated with parental and patriarchal figures. Gus is lucky to have had two fathers who cared for him, and his experience is contrasted with those hybrids who are hunted and abandoned. Aditya is constantly discovering how far he will go to keep his wife safe. These loving dynamics are effectively contrasted with General Abbot’s disdainful behavior toward his subordinate Johnny (Marlon Williams).

Sweet Tooth Netflix series Jeff Lemire about fatherhood, being a parent, growing up

Many of the parents in Sweet Tooth become parents by accident. Pubba was not Gus’ biological father, but simply the janitor who worked at the lab where Gus was developed and who ended up raising Gus through sheer chance. Tommy is just wandering through the wilderness when he stumbles across Gus. A therapist named Aimee (Dania Ramirez) inadvertently ends up creating a safe home for the hybrid children. Nobody in Sweet Tooth is prepared for parenthood.

There is something heartening in this, especially in the context of a global pandemic that has seen many people becoming parents in unimaginably difficult circumstances. Even if predictions of a pandemic baby boom aren’t coming to pass, at least outside of Australia, this is still a particularly turbulent time for parents. Even at the best of times, it is reasonable for parents to worry about the world facing their children. Those fears are understandably amplified in these chaotic times.

Sweet Tooth was filmed in New Zealand during the pandemic, so it makes sense that the series reflects those anxieties back at the audience. However, like all fairy tales, Sweet Tooth provides a safe space in which those fears might be explored and even conquered. For all that the characters find themselves thrown in the deep end against impossible odds in a broken world, Sweet Tooth remains curiously hopeful.

Confronted with his hybrid child in the hospital, Tommy retreats to the elevator. He panics, a sensation that many parents will recognize. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he admits to Aditya. Aditya reassures him, “You’ll be surprised what you’re capable of, when it’s for someone you love.” It’s not quite as reassuring as a “happily ever after,” but it is perhaps enough.

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