We should probably start with the antlers. The eye-catching promo image for Netflix’s new eight-part fantasy series Sweet Tooth introduces its lead character Gus, a child who was born part-animal, part-human.
The post-apocalyptic show, which is co-produced by Robert Downey Jr and adapted from Jeff Lemire’s comic book series, depicts the emergence of hybrid children after a mysterious virus sweeps the world.
It’s an admittedly bonkers premise but it could also become your new favourite watch, if early reactions are anything to go by.
Here are six things to know about Sweet Tooth, which launches on Friday.
1. It takes a minute to get your head around the concept
Sweet Tooth’s protagonist is Gus, a boy who is one of a generation of so-called hybrids. Gus has antlers, but other characters have been born with wings, fur, or even snouts or beaks.
“Gus is a very curious and innocent hybrid boy, who’s part-deer and part-human,” explains 11-year-old actor Christian Convery. “He’s very isolated, because he’s been with his father in the woods his whole life, and he’s never seen another human. Gus is very hopeful, positive, and always looking for the best in any situation.”
Hybrids emerged after a deadly virus wreaked havoc around the world. They are hunted and feared by most humans because it’s unknown if the new species was the cause or the result of a global virus, which is why Gus lives with his father in the woods – far from the dangers of civilisation.
Early in the drama, we see Gus almost captured by hybrid hunters, before his life is saved by Jepperd, a large and intimidating man portrayed by British actor Nonso Anozie. The pair then embark on a journey together into the wider world.
“For me, Jepperd is this really tough exterior guy. We know he was a pro-athlete in the past, he has this dark past that he’s trying to get away from,” says Anozie. “So he’s got leadership qualities, toughness, he knows how to be strong. But there is a heart of gold in there, that Gus somehow, through his innocence and optimism, which is something Jepperd hasn’t come into contact with for many years, brings out in him.”
2. It’s adapted from a comic book
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this bizarre set-up started life as a comic book series by Canadian writer and artist Jeff Lemire.
“Jeff has so much richness in the comic books in terms of, not just the characters, but visually,” says co-showrunner Beth Schwartz. “And so we tried to bring that to the screen, whether that was with his imaginative dream sequences that Gus has, or even just his iconic wardrobe.”
Lemire was heavily involved in the adaptation of his own comic books. “I’m a big Jeff fan and nothing would’ve been worse than him watching the show and being like, ‘I don’t get it’,” laughs director Jim Mickle. “So we brought him into conversations very early and often. He was one of the first people to see the pilot, and over the years we’ve gained a real mutual trust and respect.”
3. Team Downey is behind the show
The TV adaptation of Sweet Tooth has been developed by Team Downey – the production company set up by Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr and his wife Susan Downey.
The company already has one Golden Globe-nominated show under its belt in the shape of Perry Mason, but it was also behind the critically-panned remake of Dolittle – so a mixed bag of production credits so far.
When the trailer for Sweet Tooth dropped, many fans pointed out on social media that Downey Jr has effectively moved over from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the stable of its rival, DC Comics.
But, Susan Downey explains: “When we got involved, it was a Vertigo title which then got absorbed entirely by DC. I hadn’t even thought about it, until I read the same things you did, and then I kind of laughed at it, that people wanted to make a thing of it. But the truth is, if we can contribute to both universes being built out and people appreciating great storytelling and characters then I’m all for it.”
4. The critics have been broadly positive
“Fittingly switching between sweetness and bite, Sweet Tooth is a children’s fable fit for grown-ups,” wrote Empire’s Ian Freer. “It’s not startlingly original but is buoyed by affecting chemistry between Convery and Anozie.”
Huw Fullerton of the Radio Times awarded the show four stars. “Sometimes Sweet Tooth can drag, and not every storyline is as interesting as others… but once the story gets going it’s quite compelling, and Gus makes for a winning (if sometimes slightly too precocious) protagonist.”
“Sweet Tooth is the new show to fall head over heels for,” wrote Germain Lussier of Gizmodo. “It’s got something for everyone and we think it has the potential to break out in ways only a very select few streaming shows do.”
Alex McLevy of the AV Club said there was “a lot to like about this shaggy dog of a road-trip series” but said the parallels with the coronavirus pandemic often make it less enjoyable. “Happily, the plague-driven paranoia only accounts for about one-third of the deeply trifurcated story, but it’s enough to occasionally leave a world-weary viewer wishing to spend time elsewhere.”
5. It was filmed in New Zealand
The first episode of the show was filmed over a year before the rest of the series – during which time the show jumped from Hulu, which had ordered the pilot, to Netflix, who picked up the full series.
(We ask if producers were worried about Convery looking older in the intervening period. Schwartz replies: “Yes! That was our biggest worry.” But it’s not noticeable on screen.)
“We did the first episode in New Zealand,” Susan Downey explains. “And we actually thought we may shoot the rest of the series somewhere else. But everybody fell in love with shooting there.
“There’s an exaggerated quality about the universe that we built, but that’s true to New Zealand as well. Everything is just a little brighter and larger than you would expect, it had everything that we needed.”
“The Covid security on set was A+,” says Convery. Azonie adds: “The health authorities in New Zealand did a fantastic job of keeping us safe, and following the health guidelines strictly, that we could be free within our bubbles to create and tell the story.”
6. The tone has changed for the TV show
When the trailer was released, fans of the graphic novels noted the TV series looked more family-friendly than the very dark tone of the comics.
“Even fans of the original comics might be surprised by just how euphoric this version of Sweet Tooth can be at times,” said Digital Spy’s David Opie. “But in a genre as crowded as this, that’s no bad thing.”
Susan Downey explains this was a deliberate tonal change the producers made to help the show be more accessible.
“There are such beautiful themes that Jeff Lemire played with in the book, so we wanted to make sure we preserved that, but also wanted to pivot it and make sure it was done in a more palatable way,” she says.
“We wanted it to be an enjoyable place for people to show up and watch something. I’m not a big fan of the traditional post-apocalyptic dark, rubble and greys and all that, but when we were able to clue into this storybook dystopia, we found there was a perfect match of something you’ve never seen before and an incredible message behind it, in this beautiful landscape, and the challenge of that was super-appealing to us.”
Sweet Tooth is available now on Netflix.