He was an Antler Boy

Beware ‘Sweet Tooth’, Netflix’s hit YA-grade plague-porn series

Whatever else you might say about the YA-grade plague-porn that is Netflix’s hit show Sweet Tooth (based on the comic book by Jeff Lemire), you can’t fault its scenery. The American Midwest, where it’s supposed to take place, never presented such stunning vistas of river valleys at sunset as do its New Zealand locations. If Bilbo Baggins were to pop around the corner and offer our hero, young Gus the deer-boy, a pint, no one would be surprised. But then, of course, the baddies, not the Nazgul but the Last Men, would show up and haul them off for extermination or worse. That’s how it goes in the post-epidemic States, where the babies are half-animal and having a cough will get you burned alive.

Gus (Christian Convery) and his father, Pubba (Will Forte), escape to a cabin in the woods just as the great Sick is descending upon civilization, killing untold numbers. Gus is just an infant at the time, and though you might wonder how Pubba manages to carry half an Ikea inventory on his back getting there, soon they settle in to a routine of Pubba telling Gus not to go beyond the fences, and Pubba watching Gus’s antlers grow. For Gus, it transpires, is one of the hybrid children, half-human, half-animal, who started to be born around the time the plague began.

People conjecture, on the one hand, that the hybrids caused the Sick, and, on the other, that they resulted from it. No one knows for sure. What is for sure, though, is that the group known as the Last Men hunt and capture or kill every hybrid they can. It’s not quite clear how Pubba knows this, seeing as he and Gus have been in the cabin since the first days of the Sick, but we’re to take it that this is the reason for his prohibition on passing the fences.

Forte, with his usual mush-mouthed earnestness, does a pretty good job of conveying his concern over Gus’s well-being. There are plenty of tender moments in the first couple of episodes, little domestic scenes of fishing and leaping over streams and such. Underlying it all is Pubba’s anxiety that someone will discover them, which he conveys best in wordless moments in which his eyes reach out helplessly toward his child.

Sweet Tooth being Gus’s story, of course, before long he is off beyond the fences, heading for Colorado in search of the woman he thinks might be his mother, off into the wonderful world of social-distancing signs. He’s accompanied by the stuffed dog (named Dog) Pubba made him and an imposing individual he calls Big Man (Nonso Anozie), who wants nothing to do with Gus but somehow can’t help himself. It’s almost as though the plot demanded this to happen.

Big Man, a.k.a. Tommy Jepperd, has some sins for which he must atone, so perhaps he’s making up for them by doing what he can to get Gus where he wants to go. But if that’s so, it’s really not clear. Gus makes his fawn-eyes, or with his ultra-keen nose sniffs out the pain-meds upon which Tommy depends, and Tommy goes along with Gus. It’s either rank sympathy or pure self-interest. In neither case is it a man trying to make up for his past sins. Or if it is, nobody bothers to make that clear.

Meanwhile, back in the gated community we keep flashing to, distracting us from the main story, Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar) is doing his damndest to find a cure for the Sick. His wife, Rani (Aliza Vellani), has had it for years, but he’s been able to keep it at bay with one treatment or other. His predecessor at the community’s clinic, Dr. Gladys Bell (Sarah Peirse), has left him a notebook that describes a possible treatment, one that involves the bone marrow of a living hybrid.

This would involve a certain amount of torture of the creature—an ethical dilemma for Dr. Singh, perhaps, but perhaps it’s not so big a deal when you live in a community that takes anybody who has a twitchy pinky finger, binds him in shrink-wrap, and burns his house down around him while singing “Auld Lang Syne.” Neighborhood watch O.D., perhaps, but why aren’t there any fire trucks there, to make sure the flames don’t spread to the next house? Just put on your masks and watch it burn.

The show gets to its most preposterous when Gus and Tommy find themselves among the Animal Army, a gang of twenty-something gadabouts who claim to have made a sanctuary for hybrids but seem mostly interested in doing guerilla training via VR headset and lounging around listening to techno. Their leader, Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen), gives a long and incomprehensible speech about how of course the hybrids didn’t cause the Sick, but the hybrids are the Earth’s way of restoring balance after the rich and powerful had for so long been exploiting and polluting her, because something had to happen and then it did. The air and the oceans are clean now! Let’s party!

Of course, such harmony can’t last in the world of Sweet Tooth. Tommy has dark secrets in his past, and not everyone in the Animal Army buys it that he’s reformed, even if Bear might. Let’s put on masks that let us play hybrid and fight it out! Whatever the effects of the Sick might have been, bestowing reason far and wide does not seem to have been one of them.

All this fails to mention the pig-girl, Wendy (Naledi Murray). In another storyline to which we keep flashing, she and her guardian, Aimee Eden (Dania Ramirez), hole up in a zoo, sneaking out for supplies, listening in on ham radio for news of the outside world and watching out for the usual bad guys. Aimee, too, sets up a sanctuary for hybrids, but unlike at the Animal Army’s compound, we actually see some of the little critters. They’re supposed to be cute, but tell me there’s nothing creepy about a talking, big-eyed groundhog in a tight blue jacket.

Sweet Tooth veers from smarm to butchery to fake tension. Will Tommy go with Gus to Colorado? Will Dr. Singh betray his Hippocratic oath and experiment on hybrids? Will Bear win her fight against Tiger? You can’t count on Josh Brolin’s sagacious-sounding-but-actually-inane narration to tell you, but don’t worry. Tune in twenty seconds from now and find out.

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G.L. Ford

G. L. Ford lives and works in Victoria, Texas. He is the author of Sans, a book of poems (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017). He edited the 6x6 poetry periodical from 2000 to 2017, and formerly wrote a column for the free paper New York Nights.

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