So, there are a bunch of kids imprisoned in a cell, planning their escape. First, they need a scheme to get hold of the keys. What tools do they have at their disposal? The floor is earth, so it’s obvious: the child who’s half-chipmunk should burrow out. The kid with the lion’s mane, the girl with the pig’s nose and the little guy who has the full face and trunk of an elephant all agree. The chipmunk boy starts chewing the ground.
Welcome back to the singular world of Sweet Tooth, the pandemic dystopia drama the whole family can enjoy. If you missed season one: the world has been devastated by the Sick, a virus which sprung up and rapidly spread right at the same moment when babies started being born with animal features. In the absence of any other explanation, these “hybrids” are seen as dangerous vermin, routinely incarcerated or just killed by fearful humans. Previously we have been following Gus (Christian Convery), a 10-year-old boy with the ears, antlers and senses of a deer, as he crossed a ravaged America – at first he was looking for his mother, but he’s recently discovered that no such person exists. He is a scientific experiment, made in a lab, and he might be the key to the story of the hybrids and/or the hunt for a cure for the Sick. But he needs to break out of jail first.
Season two feels, in its early episodes, like more of a kids’ show than ever, albeit with plenty of sly nods to the parents to keep them interested. Imprisonment means Gus has become separated from Tommy “Big Man” Jepperd (Nonso Anozie), his adopted father figure and physical protector. “He’d tell me to grow a pair,” Gus tells the girl with the pig’s nose as he muses on what his pal would say if they were still together. A pair of what, she asks? “I don’t know. He never said.”
When the adults do appear, we are reminded that this is a series for older kids only: any viewer younger than Gus would find the violence of the post-Sick world too scary. Those hybrids are locked up because oddball mercenary General Abbot (Neil Sandilands), an arresting Gaiman-esque visual creation with his bald head, huge grey beard and red-tinted John Lennon specs, wants to experiment on them to help him find a cure. Any tiny inmate hauled off by the guards is unlikely to come back, unless it’s in the form of a hoof or claw worn around one of the bad guys’ necks. Not that Abbot does the evil science himself, since another of his captives is Sick expert Dr Aditya Singh. The second season gains a sense of greater import from bringing together what were, in the first run, disparate storylines: Singh, previously the isolated star of a subplot kept interesting by him being played so brilliantly by Adeel Akhtar, now meets Gus, giving them – and us – intriguing new info.
Big Man, meanwhile, has teamed up with Aimee (Dania Ramirez), formerly the manager of a haven for hybrids that Abbot has now retooled as a prison. Their pairing, one of them motivated by loss to save the kids and the other by guilt, is not the only bit of heavy character drama skilfully woven into the grand adventure. When we get to know Johnny (Marlon Williams), Abbot’s ineffectual younger brother, the psychodrama that develops about contrasting siblings bonded by trauma is certainly one for the grownups.
Aimee and Big Man’s temporary exile in the ordinary outside world brings them into contact with crowds of people who, to Aimee’s bewildered disgust, seem blase about a killer virus that is still very much on the loose. This tilt at the reality into which Sweet Tooth has arrived is a companion to the season one scene that furiously took the mickey out of anti-vaxxers, but the show generally is too confident in its own world to function as an allegory.
The miracle Sweet Tooth performs is in keeping everyone happy. It’s a brutal post-apocalyptic drama that successfully harnesses the cute innocence of children, but is also a fantasy series grounded in the harshest of truths about what adults can do when times are tough, so it never falls into the trap of making the viewer feel as if nothing is real and nothing really matters. Season two builds skilfully to a showdown with several bravely uncompromising payoffs, delivered in a way that its younger viewers can easily appreciate, not least because it tends to be grownups who meet their fate. Sweet Tooth knows that kids – with or without horns, paws or tails – are not to be underestimated.
Sweet Tooth is on Netflix.