Sweet Tooth, Netflix's new fantasy series, starts after the world has already ended -- sort of. Aside from some looks into the past, the series is set in the aftermath of The Great Crumble, a devastating event that destroyed much of the world through a highly contagious and seemingly invincible virus that killed off most of the population and left survivors to lead a chaotic and desperate existence in the ruins of their old life. But the pandemic wasn't the only world-shaking event contributing to the Great Crumble. Simultaneous to the spread of the virus, humans began giving birth to children with animal traits: infants with dog ears or the beak of a hawk or the snout of a pig. What, if anything, the disease had to do with offspring that came to be called hybrids nobody knew. But they did understand fear, and hybrids soon found themselves as welcome as the disease that accompanied their arrival. The thought that hybrids, rather than the humans who came before, might be better suited for this new world proved too far-fetched or scary to entertain for those left behind, who turned to isolation and violence to sustain a semblance of the life they knew before, no matter how much damage they cause in the process.
An adaptation of a comic book written and drawn by Jeff Lemire, Sweet Tooth is the story of what happens next. But it's also -- as narration provided in weathered, husky tones by James Brolin assures viewers in the series' opening moments -- the story of a "a very special boy." Specifically, it's the story of Gus (Christian Convery), a hybrid born with the antlers and ears of a deer (and a deer's heightened senses to match) who's spent the first 10 years of his life growing up in the far reaches of Yellowstone. His quick-thinking father Richard (Will Forte, who's strong, as usual, in a dramatic role), whom Gus calls "Pubba," whisked him there in the early stages of the Great Crumble, teaching him survival skills and raising him on his own handmade adaptation of children's classics like The Velveteen Rabbit. It's a good, if lonely, life. It also can't last.
Shepherded by Jim Mickle (director of the well-liked horror films Stake Land and We Are What We Are) and Beth Schwarz (a veteran of Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow), the eight-episode first season of Sweet Tooth follows Gus on a journey of discovery that takes him out of the only home he's even known and into a more dangerous world where children pretend to kill hybrids in makeshift carnival games while an armed militia known the Last Men attempts to eliminate them for real. As Gus tries to find the home of his mother, he picks up a traveling companion he (accurately) dubs Big Man, a former football player named Tommy Jepperd (Nonso Anozie) who, against his better instincts, decides to help Gus survive.
That's partly to atone for a past Gus won't learn about until later, and Anozie plays the part as a man weary of the world's cruelty and willing to do some good to make up for what he's contributed to it. Wandering an emptied-out version of the American West -- well-simulated by verdant New Zealand locations -- the two characters play off each other nightly, Tommy's weariness and caution contrasting with Gus's eagerness and enthusiasm. Sweet Tooth smartly lets Convery play the character like a kid, full of energy and playfulness but also quick to turn fearful and easily crushed by setbacks. (Gus' extremely expressive deer ears don't hurt the performance, either.)
Sweet Tooth takes considerable liberties with the plot of Lemire's comic while staying true to its tone, matching weirdness, darkness and a real sense of danger with whimsy and a strong strain of optimism. A stretch of sequences set in the seemingly bucolic suburban enclave that's home to Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar) and his wife Rani (Aliza Vellani) -- a research scientist and the wife he's kept alive and well in spite of her contracting the virus -- reveals just how dangerous the world has grown. But other inhabitants include a group of teen activists, led by a girl who calls herself Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen), who do their best to ensure hybrids' survival, and a carefully guarded, hybrid-friendly preserve housed in a former zoo and overseen by Aimee (Dania Ramirez), a former therapist who awakened to new possibilities after the collapse of the old world.
Visually striking and grippingly plotted up to a cliffhanger of a season finale, Sweet Tooth is suspenseful, thoughtful, and timely in ways that couldn't have been planned. Lemire's original series ran from 2009 to 2013 (followed by a sequel published last year). Mickle shot the pilot in 2019 then filmed the rest of the series mid-pandemic, when a story filled with mask protocols and a government ill-equipped to prevent infection and disorder took on new resonance. It's an alternate version of the present that's converged with our own timeline in some scary ways. But the series also keeps returning to themes that could work in any moment by depicting a world in which one generation tries to hold onto the reins longer than they should, refusing to recognize that the world has changed or even the fundamental humanity of those who come after them. That's usually for reasons less fantastical than animal parts, but it gives Sweet Tooth a resonance that goes beyond the winning characters and bizarre adventures that make it one of the year's standout debuts. Sometimes the end of the world isn't quite what it looks to be. Maybe it's not even the end at all.
TV Guide rating: 4/5
Sweet Tooth premieres Friday, June 4 on Netflix.