Sweet Tooth review: Netflix TV show delicate balance of light and dark

If someone tells you there’s a new Netflix fantasy series dropping, it starts to feel not so much like deja vu and more like you’re stuck in a time loop.

Fantasy is a genre Netflix has really plumbed in the past couple of years, obviously seeing a lot of traction among its viewers in the reams and reams of data it has about taste profiles and all that maths stuff.

Which is why Sweet Tooth, which has fantasy elements and was adapted from a comic book series, was so surprising when it turned out to be good. Not just good, it’s even great.

To be fair, Sweet Tooth isn’t high fantasy, there aren’t wizards or spells but there is a quest of sorts, and some people are wearing what could be classified as cloaks. Sweet Tooth falls into the magical realism category in that its world building is primarily grounded in what we know, just with a bit of a twist.

It’s a gentle, delightful series that has a vein of tragedy running through it but it’s not overwhelmingly dark. It’s even optimistic and, as the name suggests, sweet, but without being too saccharine.

In that sense, Sweet Tooth evokes the earlier works of TV writer Bryan Fuller, shows such as Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies – and like the latter, there’s a voiceover narration, here it’s from James Brolin.

Sweet Tooth is set 10 years after a population-decimating pandemic. A mysterious, highly infectious virus reaps through the world, killing off the majority. At the same time, every baby that is born is a human-animal hybrid.

No one knows what came first – the virus or the hybrids – but that doesn’t stop fearful humans from persecuting the unusual children.

One of these kids is Gus (Christian Convery), who has deer ears and antlers, as well as the hypersensitive hearing and sense of smell that comes with his animal side. Gus is raised by his father (Will Forte) in the middle of the woods, where they’ve scrounged a life for themselves.

Gus has always been warned to not trust other humans but when he finds himself on his own, he befriends a former football star Tommy Jeppard/Big Man (Nonso Anozie) who saves him from a couple of poachers.

The transient Big Man isn’t looking for a travelling companion, especially a trouble-magnet like Gus. Gus is on a quest to find the woman he’s been told is his mother, and his adventures will take him through many places and through the doors of many people.

There are also two other subplots involving a doctor (Adeel Akhtar) who’s looking to save his wife from “the sick”, and a woman (Dania Ramirez) who’s created a sanctuary for hybrids.

Sweet Tooth is well-paced, unfolding at brisk enough speed to keep you engaged, while giving character and story moments enough time to breathe. The semi-episodic structure keeps it bingey but not relentless – so you’ll want to keep watching but you won’t resent it.

The production design is imaginative while the photography greatly benefits from being filmed in New Zealand. There’s nothing like those Kiwi vistas.

And much like the story itself, the character of Gus is a delicate, sincere balance of being loveable and cute without being twee and cloying. There is darkness and many threats in this post-apocalyptic story but you’re never overcome by it.

Convery, 11, has a natural instinct while directors Jim Mickle, Toa Fraser and Robyn Grace have worked to extract an authentic performance from the young actor.

That almost impossible balance is a really hard spot to hit, but Sweet Tooth smashes it with the strength of Gus’ heart.

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