“At all happened so fast. Too fast. We thought we were prepared for this. HINI and SARS hit only years before. We had fair warning. We had time to prepare. But it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. Any safeguards and provisions we had in place were instantly overwhelmed. Millions died in mere weeks.”
When one reads the opening lines of “Sweet Tooth” #12 (the last chapter in Vol. 1 of the series’ Deluxe Edition graphic novel collection) its easy to see why the writers of the show swerved in the creative direction that they did. Jeff Lemire‘s post-apocalyptic neo-Western tale of a boy with antlers (a project that’s been in creative development through Robert Downey Jr.’s production company for quite some time) does not read as a story primarily focused around a viral pandemic, but rather uses its barren setting as a catalyst, setting the stage for a tale about the loss of humanity. The story fits the state of America today like a tailored suit and Netflix has molded Lemire’s creation into a post-quarantine conscious world. The comic book introduces us to our lead character Gus (Christian Convery) via a first-person nightmare. The series metaphorically does the same, framing society in a state of collapse through the perspective of a nearly-helpless Dr. Singh (played by Adeel Akhtar in the series) as he rushes his symptom displaying wife to the hospital – the same man who narrates issue #12 of the original comic (quoted above, seen below).
Aside from mask wearing commentary, this stark difference in approach to narrative structure and perspective is perhaps the most glaring change “Sweet Tooth” the TV series makes. Where the comic deliberately chooses to only tell through one person’s eyes, the series consistently opts to show. Where an episode of the series might begin with a cold opening establishing a new set of characters, Lemire’s comic is subjectively told in a way that is purposefully not “all-knowing,” paralleling the overwhelmed state of the boy at its center, a boy being hunted by virtually everyone around him. Establishing this danger, the sense of dread Gus feels as the prospect of breaking one of his father’s rules, is often accomplished through a singular voice. Showrunner Jim Mickle’s series trades this introspective narration in for a more middle-grade storybook slant.
To reiterate my Season 1 Review, none of these observations are meant as blatant value judgements; my goal with these pieces is to analyze the narrative dimensions picked apart and reassembled by the series’ writer’s room – examining why certain changes were made and inquiring what that says about the current (overwhelming) wave of contemporary comic book adaptations. Much like Amazon Prime’s “Invincible,” or, perhaps a better comparison, AMC’s “Preacher” – to steal a term from Damon Lindelof – “Sweet Tooth” feels like a ‘remix’ of the original comic, extrapolating certain elements and moving them around structurally to better ease the audience into its world, without sacrificing plot progression. The first season of AMC’s adaptation effectively transposed a later storyline into an expansive world-building prologue, sort of ending where both the first issue and first volume leave off. “Sweet Tooth” does something similar by taking “The Singh Tapes” and moving them to a montage at the start of the opening episode. When later paired with Episode 2’s alt-perspective on the “Great Crumble,” the sum of the parts reads reminiscent of “Y: the Last Man’s” classic opening, which I touched on already.
Wisely showing off its budget via the power of a sweeping montage, the opening of the show shows us the “Great Crumble” in effect, intercutting between a world collapsing in on itself and Gus’ “Pubba” (his father, played by Will Forte) hiding a deer baby away in the woods (Yellowstone Park, specifically). None of this information was revealed until far later in the comic, and Gus’ father has a significantly expanded role in the series, a wise creative decision. Juxtaposing the extreme responsibility felt by these two key figures of the viral outbreak adds a palpable tension and sense of fantastical promise to the proceedings. Whereas Lemire’s journey is set-off by end of the world necessity, the Netflix series establishes a more fables-esque heroic narrative, one in which a farm boy sets off to find adventure as opposed to his venturing out into the world purely being a matter of survival. We never leave Gus’ headspace in the first issue of the comic, the first episode of Netflix’s series shows us everything Gus cannot yet know.
A prime example of this is flyers for “The Preserve” being dropped via flyover as Pubba walks through the woods, seeding a later setting and plot line, expanding all the details of a post-pandemic world in a way the comic narrative could not. Gus childhood cabin also peppers in more set-dressing details, such as a car chair sitting beside a pile of firewood like a luxury lounger, or showing the construction of a mill and running water system. Later in the pilot, we witness Gus making stick/straw friends to play with. Hope and imaginative potential percolate the TV show far more than in the downer of a comic. The show has also seemingly swapped the book’s religious undertones with more blanket fairy tale mythology. Gus displays an almost kind of Catholic guilt in the comic, abiding by the Bible introduced to him by his father. In the series, Pubba has remade classic children’s book such as “The Velveteen Rabbit” in his own hand. Not unlike the candy bar which leads Gus to learn hybrid-poachers are a thing, stories are specifically framed and presented as being potentially harmful, but also the stuff of life; growing up helps us realize the distinction. Not unlike HBO’s “Watchmen,” the fliers propagate a tale to be cautious of.
Another major change to the material is the addition of Gus’ mother, “Birdie,” who Gus learns of after digging up his father’s secret cache. Before seeing a photograph of her though, the boy with antlers is first convinced a wild deer might be his mother, which Pubba corrects. Slightly altering a page from the comics (seen above), the series finds Gus noticing the similarity in their ears, not their eyes (which also ends up being a plant for his enhanced hybrid abilities, less prevalent to the comic). The show also changes the animals sex from stag to doe, a thematic enhancement of the lack of a female presence (or fear of future lack of it, in Dr. Singh’s case) in the lives of our main characters. Like much of Lemire’s work “Sweet Tooth” is very much a series reflecting on the consequences of toxic masculinity. Jepperd’s (Nonso Anonzie) first flashback in issue #6 of the series introduces him as a man who’s penchant towards violence has ruined a promising hockey career. If you think about it, with the exception of Rani and some nurse characters, “Out Of The Deep Woods” is entirely lacking a feminine touch, which Episode 2 deliberately rectifies.
“Sorry About All The Dead People,” begins by introducing audiences to Aimee (who seems to be the show’s equivalent of Lucy) as we witness “the Great Crumble” in effect from her point of view. Having quarantined herself in an office for weeks on end (sound familiar). When she finally emerges, the city she’s living in seems entirely abandoned, as elephants walk through the fog, Aimee realizes her purpose. In this moment die-hard Lemire readers might note a certain other title penned by the series’ creator, “Plutona,” referenced on a marquee in the background. A comic which happens to benefit from the touch of an amazingly talented female creator, Emi Lennox. The call of the wild having set off a lightbulb in Aimee’s head, she sets up shop at the zoo, which will soon become a sanctuary for hybrids on the run from hunters. It is here that we meet another key character from the original series, a half-pig girl named Wendy. It also here, that I first spotted a certain other Jeff Lemire Easter Egg… and it wouldn’t be the last time.
Concluding with a line that will be mirrored several time across the season, our narrator informs us that “Aimee’s story begins here…” In general, the first season of “Sweet Tooth” is all about beginnings, a stark structural difference to the comic’s approach, in which the cast is slowly expanded. Episode 2 also gives us our first full on mask joke bit. When Jepperd and Gus force themselves upon an isolated family living in a ski-resort shop, they sit at the dinner table in stone silence, masks on. Jepperd points out that there is no need, as he has not been exposed to “the Sick” and they have had no way of being contracting it. This is also where the changes to Jepperd’s backstory and personality start to become apparent (he’s less the Lee Marvin strong-silent type, and more prone to scrappy sarcasm); not only is he a recognizable celebrity sports icon in the show, he’s also hiding a mysterious mark on his chest. Having been tracked by bad men, the ending of the episode finds Jepperd using a bear trap like a battle axe to protect Gus and the innocent family. This is the first time the show really steps into the brutally violent territory Lemire’s art evokes, and, in order the maintain a teen appropriate rating, the show stages, what one might expect to be, a grisly action scene on the other side of a window during a lightning storm, obscuring the bloody chaos in lighting shifts and muddy reflections. We are also given our first glimpse of the story’s main villain, the sinister General Abbott, but we don’t get a proper look at him just yet. I don’t love the look they’ve given him, but that’s a personal prejudice.
Speaking of, Jepperd immediately rushing to defend the discrimination against hybrids – humans assuming they caused of the virus – made the mixed-race Asian American in me nod approvingly. Whether one agrees with the series’ decision to rework some of its elements around COVID, it’s clear that the show plans to use such parallels to touch on essential issues, issues often left unaddressed in TV programs designed for young audiences. In that sense, Netflix’s more buoyant fantasy approach fits the coming-of-age aspects wonderfully. But concurrently, the show’s friendly neighbor nicety plotline, with the Singh’s, sometimes feels like a different show completely, injecting satiric, dystopian sci-fi commentary. The cold-open to the series’ third hour helps bridge this gap in tonal/genre disparity, but also makes one question if perhaps the show is expanding Lemire’s mythology a bit too quickly/loosely, partly at the expense of audiences finding their narrative footing and focusing its overall creative synergy.
* Check back for continued recap coverage (over) analyzing Season 1 of Netflix’s Sweet Tooth *