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A scientist consoles a human-animal hybrid called Gus in Sweet Tooth.
Gus (Christian Convery) and Dr Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar) in Sweet Tooth. (Photo: Netflix / Design: Archi Banal)

Pop CultureMay 7, 2023

Sweet Tooth is grim, dark – and perfect for kids

A scientist consoles a human-animal hybrid called Gus in Sweet Tooth.
Gus (Christian Convery) and Dr Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar) in Sweet Tooth. (Photo: Netflix / Design: Archi Banal)

Why this bleak Netflix series shot in New Zealand is actually excellent family viewing.

This is an excerpt from The Spinoff’s regular TV newsletter Rec Room. Sign up for regular Friday instalments.

That right there looks like a sweet family photo. Perhaps it’s a dad or an uncle consoling an upset child over a lost ball, or an ice cream that fell onto the footpath. The kid looks sad and worried, but also hopeful. With a reassuring arm placed on the child’s shoulder, the adult seems to be delivering an appropriate amount of concern. I’m pretty sure there’s a snap just like this one of my dad and I in a family photo album somewhere – minus the deer antlers and furry ears.

But this is not a nice scene. That man is scientist Dr Aditya Singh (played by Adeel Akhtar), and as we start Sweet Tooth’s excellent second season he’s attempting to prise information out of the deer-human hybrid child Gus (Christian Convery). He’ll do anything to get what he wants – so Gus is strapped to a chair, forced to take a psychedelic trip, bullied, then threatened with being opened up on an operating table. “If this doesn’t work,” says Singh, “I’m going to have to go back to taking your friends.”

Half-animal half-human hybrids in Sweet Tooth.
Some of the human-animal hybrids held in captivity in Sweet Tooth’s second season. (Photo: Netflix)

Dark? Grim? For sure – Sweet Tooth is about the end of civilisation as we know it. Humanity is done for. Almost everyone has disappeared in a moment called The Great Crumble. If your little finger starts twitching it’s a sure sign your time is nigh. Around the same time, those hybrid children are being hunted by those who think they hold the answers – or, possibly, a cure – for the disease ravaging the planet. Much of season two focuses on a group of hybrids stuck in a grimy jail while Gus gets teased, tested and tortured. It can be an uncomfortably bleak watch.

But Sweet Tooth is also something else. It’s an adorable apocalyptic yarn that’s totally for the kids. My family loves it. When the first season came out in 2021, my children – now aged nine and 13 – ripped through season one in a week, and have been nagging me ever since for details about season two. Despite it being dark and depressing, something about the show’s mix of The Last of Us and Fraggle Rock really connected with them. It burrowed into their brains. It hooked into their souls. It won them over.

This is a razor-thin tightrope that few modern TV shows attempt. It’s just too hard. Go too light and you might as well be Sesame Street. Go too dark and you risk earning the ire of parents the world over. How does Sweet Tooth do it? “Even though we’re dabbling with darker themes, we never put anything too graphic on the screen,” executive producer Susan Downey told Netflix in this piece deliberately promoting Sweet Tooth as family-friendly viewing. “There’s too many important themes and relationships and fun to be had to alienate any particular age.”

It’s true: Sweet Tooth is fun. The second season features a group of captured hybrid kids – birds, lizards, tortoises and deer – trying to escape from jail. They’re worried and upset, and every time Gus gets dragged off for more sessions with his scientist, they’re concerned he won’t return. But they’re still trying to enjoy themselves. They share jokes. They look after each other. There are moments of kindness and lightheartedness in the mix, even if their captors (Marlon Williams with a mullet!) have dark sunglasses, weird haircuts, yell a lot and feed them kibble for dinner.

Marlon Williams as Johnny Abbot and Neil Sandilands as General Abbot in Sweet Tooth.
Marlon Williams as Johnny Abbot and Neil Sandilands as General Abbot in Sweet Tooth. (Photo: Netflix)

Kids need this kind of content, don’t they? The things I have the fondest memories of watching as a child are the things that deviated towards the darker side. ET? Dark as hell! Gremlins? Terrifying! Ghostbusters? I had nightmares about the barbecued Stay Puft Marshmallow Man for months. Labyrinth had David Bowie leaping around nonsensical staircases and someone falling into the bog of eternal stench. The Never Ending Story had a flying dog dragon thing. The only thing I remember about that film was how dark it was.

They all stopped short of crossing the invisible line – a line I’m all too wary of as a parent. I was in a movie theatre with my son, then aged around seven, enjoying Star Wars: Rogue One when the Darth Vader massacre sequence began. It wasn’t graphic, or particularly gruesome, but something about the tone felt off. Vader’s victims were stuck in a metal space tube. A light sabre was being swung. The breathing was heavy. A siren sounded. It was terrifying and it really affected my son. When I admitted I’d let him see this and regretted it on a radio show, the talkback lines lit up with people calling me a terrible parent. I promised myself I’d vet all future films. Websites like Common Sense Media became a useful tool.

So far, Sweet Tooth hasn’t crossed that line, and I’m grateful for it. I’m happy to recommend it to families who want to give it a go, and feel that their children are old enough to handle a bit of darkness. It’s the kind of show that’s going to stay with my kids and get them thinking about the world. (Added bonus: with season two and the upcoming third and final season shot in and around Auckland, you can play Spot That Landmark at the same time.) Every time I wonder if my kids really should be watching it at all, I look over at their faces and realise they’re entranced, loving every single second of it. I’m glad I get the chance to watch it right there with them.

All seasons of Sweet Tooth are available to stream on Netflix.

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