A pandemic fairytale for our times

Sweet Tooth’s emotional pendulum

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This week, we’re trekking into the wilderness with new series Sweet Tooth, an apocalyptic fairytale that’s — as its name suggests — a little more wholesome than the diseased, war-torn landscape in which it takes place. (Also, its title character gets his name from literally being lured into a trap by a chocolate bar, which is all of us journeying into our kitchens at 3AM to polish off the Caramilk™ we bought with the express purpose of savouring it over five to seven days). Let’s dive in.

Streaming tonight
Watch trailer

Sweet Tooth

This is a show that wears its heart and its references on its sleeve. Its apocalyptic overtones might feel all too familiar: a fast-spreading virus without a cure, dwindling medical supplies, mass panic, face masks, even a glimpse at a sign that extols the virtues of social distancing. Its setting, too, a little too reminiscent of reality: an America that’s been ravaged by The Great Crumble — a catch-all term for a mysterious plague, the subsequent collapse of humanity, and a return to past ways of living, swinging between the pastoral and the primeval with threatening ease. 

But Sweet Tooth — an adaptation of Jeff Lemire’s DC comics, executive produced by Robert Downey Jr. — isn’t all doom and gloom. Instead, there’s something wondrous about it, following the ten-year-old half-deer, half-boy Gus — outcast that he is — as he learns about the world anew. And so the show reverberates on this taut emotional pendulum: by day, a cottagecore fantasy of self-sufficiency; by night: a hunter-and-prey nightmare, with multiple groups of shady strongmen out to get our protagonist Gus, one of many ‘hybrid’ children who were born at the outset of the plague. 

After a decade spent in (for lack of a better word) isolation with his protective father, Gus tiptoes out in search of his mother, hanging onto the mere possibility that she may be alive in Colorado. I can safely say that I have no idea where Colorado is (unless we are talking about Colorado the shoe brand, in which case I have too many memories of being bored in shopping centres as a child while my parents tried on hiking boots without any intention of ever going hiking), so poor Gus has no chance. It’s just as well, then, that he happens upon Jepperd (Nonso Anozie, Game of Thrones), a Hulk of a man who eventually, reluctantly warms to him. So off they traipse, across hilly crags and mossy forests on a treacherous journey into the American heartland.

New Zealand, where Sweet Tooth was shot, feels like a perfect stand-in for a post-pandemic America. Last week I said that Master of None was in its folklore era now, but New Zealand has always been in its folklore era. This is a broad and sweeping generalisation, though “broad” and “sweeping” are also how I would describe New Zealand itself, so I am allowed to say it. New Zealand was in its folklore era when Peter Jackson used its vast mountainscapes as a vision of Middle Earth. New Zealand was in its folklore era when Prince Caspian set four children loose in The Coromandel on a quest to save their beloved Narnia. New Zealand was in its folklore era when...Macklemore and Ryan Lewis staged a dance-off on its beaches? (Do not ask me what New Zealand has to do with a song mostly about the structural integrity of dancefloor ceilings because I do not know the answer).

New Zealand continues to be in its folklore era with Sweet Tooth, a series which harnesses its bucolic landscapes and rollicking hills in a road trip that’s equal parts dystopic and fanciful, maintaining an elastic tension between light and shade. The world as we know it has ended, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find moments of glee anyway, especially as experienced through a child’s eyes (and ears, and antlers): the way the sunlight hits a field of flowers, or listening to music for the first time. And as the mysteries of Sweet Tooth — a side quest about a doctor desperately trying to save his wife, a glimpse into the life of a former marriage counsellor who adopts a hybrid baby — begin to converge, we’re comforted throughout by that storybook narration, courtesy of a voiceover from James Brolin. It’s the aural equivalent of a warm hug, reminding us that fairytales can exist even in the most despairing of times.

Sweet Tooth streams tonight on Netflix.

Watch these too:

  • Love and Monsters, a similarly whimsical journey starring Dylan O’Brien as a hapless teen who, seven years after a monster apocalypse, must leave his underground bunker in search of what matters most: ~ love ~. (Dylan O’Brien is all of us when we have a crush). 

  • Long-anticipated Grishaverse adaptation Shadow and Bone, with its complex web of fantastical narratives culminating in the power of one orphan girl to save a war-torn world.

  • Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja. While not as dystopic as Sweet Tooth, it still features the dastardly forces of the universe (metonymised in one very dastardly Tilda Swinton) conspiring against a girl and her super pig who must escape the clutches of evil.

I can’t stop thinking about:

And apropos of nothing, a vintage Pride PSA from first-brickthrower-at-Stonewall Hillary Duff:

A visual interpretation of my brain as I am trying to sleep at 3AM: tHaT’s sO giRl wEaRinG a sKirT aS a ToP 𝓰ᵢᵣₗ 𝓌ₑₐᵣᵢₙ𝓰 ₐ ₛₖᵢᵣₜ ₐₛ ₐ ₜₒₚ ᵃ ˢᵏᶦʳᵗ ᵃˢ ᵃ ᵗᵒᵖ ᵃˢ ᵃ ᵗᵒᵖ…

Michael Sun is the Netflix Culture Editor at Junkee.
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