A plague with no antidote. Conspiracy theories gone mad. Apocalyptic consequences. Netflix’s revelatory “Sweet Tooth” takes all the nightmarish what-ifs that have rendered us sleepless for more than a year and turns them into a vivid escapist fantasy series that pits darkness and despair against innocence and hope, then dresses it up in antlers.
Narrated by Josh Brolin and executive produced by Susan and Robert Downey Jr., the streamer’s latest, which premiered last week, is adapted from the DC comic book series of the same name by Jeff Lemire. The comic has been described as a cross between “Mad Max” and “Bambi,” which is also a fine way to frame this delightfully feral eight-part series, created by Jim Mickle.
It imagines a world 10 years after “The Great Crumble,” when a large swath of the human race has been wiped out by a mysterious plague. I know, anything involving face masks and quarantining seems like the last thing you’d want to watch now, but “Sweet Tooth” takes us places far more beauteous, exciting and bizarre than real-life lockdown — and, more importantly, offers an escape from our own abnormal norm in the form of a quirky, well-told story about a deer boy.
He’s part of a new phenomenon that arrived with “The Sick”: an inexplicable baby boom of half-human, half-animal newborns, some with wings, others with hooves. A politically motivated theory arises that the hybrids are responsible for the plague (they aren’t) so a bounty is put on the heads of the poor animal children, who are hunted by power-drunk General Abbot (Neil Sandilands) and his army, the Last Men.
The hybrid we follow is Gus, a scrappy yet innocent wild child played by talented newcomer Christian Convery. He’s been sheltered from the ravages of the End Times while living deep in the forest with his protective father (Will Forte), but when circumstances force him to venture into the outside world, he befriends the fierce, jaded loner Jepperd (Nonso Anozie). Their search for lost family takes them on a journey across the post-apocalyptic West, where nature has reclaimed most of the land from Yellowstone Park to urban centers. The landscape is full of decaying and natural beauty, as well as kindness and treachery.
Other characters include Dr. Singh (Adeel Akhtar), who lives in a suburb with a terrifyingly ardent neighborhood watch, and social shut-in turned freedom fighter Aimee (Dania Ramirez), who adopts a hybrid pig baby and takes up residence at the old zoo. As their stories converge, mysteries about Gus’ origin, the Sick, hybrids and more are answered and compounded, giving followers plenty to look forward to should “Sweet Tooth” land a second season.
There are moments in “Sweet Tooth” that are chillingly close to the bone: doctors covered head to toe in protective gear and face shields, working on patients in hermetically sealed rooms. Aged signage urging citizens to socially distance. Toilet paper supplies transported by an armed guard. Reflecting what we’ve just been through is not a central theme of this series, which was shot in New Zealand before and during the pandemic, but when it does hit those chords, it does so with a sensitivity and weightiness that’s not easy to achieve in the realm of fantasy.
Plague aftershock as entertainment seems preposterous right about now, but when transformed by the weirdo extremes of “Sweet Tooth’s” universe, the subject becomes a post-apocalyptic joyride.