Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth is a comic book about a young boy surviving in a world ravaged by a pandemic. He also happens to be a “hybrid,” a new breed of half-human, half-animal creature that began to appear alongside the deadly sickness. It’s a dark story, one that had the potential to be incredibly bleak and uncomfortable when translated to television. That’s particularly true now, as the real world continues to deal with its own pandemic. For the team adapting the story for an upcoming series on Netflix, all of these factors combined to create a slightly different approach. “It made us lean more into the hope,” executive producer Amanda Burrell says of the show.
Netflix’s eight-episode Sweet Tooth series will debut on June 4th. It’s a live-action take on the comics, one that maintains the same basic premise: Gus, a nine-year-old boy with deer antlers, lives in relative isolation with his father, before eventually setting out into the larger world alongside a wanderer named Jepperd. (There are other changes, but they venture into spoiler territory.) Aside from the move to live-action, one of the biggest shifts is pacing. Sweet Tooth is a real page-turner in comic book form, but the show moves much more leisurely, lingering on key moments. That’s by design.
“We wanted to draw things out a bit more,” explains Burrell. “We wanted to give more time to Gus and Jepperd together. We wanted to slow down and ensure we were really inside all of the characters.” This also gives the show time to steadily introduce some of the more fantastical concepts, like the hybrids themselves, as early on, the focus is almost entirely on Gus. “We really wanted to slowly get the audience on board with this very specific type of new human, and really get them emotionally invested in Gus before opening it up too wide,” Burrell adds. “It was an intentional thing. We want the audience to be with these characters and not removed from them.”
This focus on Gus is also where that hope comes from. The boy, played by Christian Convery, has a wide-eyed optimism that’s easy to get caught up in, particularly when it’s played against Jepperd’s cynicism. In fact, there’s almost a schism in the show, where the younger characters seem able to deal with the state of the world in a much more positive way compared to the adults. So even if there are incredibly dark moments, there’s a sense of balance. “We wanted to make sure that humanity wasn’t depicted in just such a dark, foreboding way,” Burrell says, adding, “We talked a lot about not wanting audiences to be alienated by the world. That kind of hopeless feeling you get after you watch a show that has a bleakness to it. Then it was just about leaning into Gus.”
She describes the show’s vibe as a “storybook dystopia,” a feeling that was enhanced by filming in New Zealand. (The story is set in the US.) “We went to New Zealand, and it has this kind of heightened magic to it,” Burrell says. “The trees look slightly different, the mountains are bigger. It allowed us to really accentuate the beauty of nature.”
The pilot for Sweet Tooth was filmed in 2019, before the current pandemic, and it wasn’t until it came time to write the rest of the season that “the world went nuts,” as Burrell describes it. The real-world pandemic had some influence over the show’s comparatively lighter tone, though it didn’t alter the actual story in any way. That said, Burrell notes that a tension could be felt during filming, particularly during one scene (which I won’t spoil) that feels eerily familiar after a 2020 filled with lockdowns and quarantines. “On set, you could hear a pin drop,” she explains.
This all raises an interesting question: why are people drawn to these stories, particularly as they more closely resemble our own reality (deer children aside)? The last year has seen major releases like the grim The Last of Us Part II, Amazon’s take on the Stephen King classic The Stand, and the surprising heartwarming film Love and Monsters, to name just a few. Burrell has a theory as to why this kind of post-apocalyptic setting continues to resonate.
“There’s a tension to: what if it’s all over? I think the idea of the human spirit and the future, wrestling back constantly, is just so powerful,” she explains. “The Last of Us is a great example. Seeing what humans are willing to do for one another; obviously it can get very dark, like in that instance. But it’s just really powerful to see what people do for one another. I think now more than ever we need to feel that.”