Sweet Tooth was never supposed to be a show about Covid-19. But when coronavirus set in, co-showrunners Jim Mickle and Beth Schwartz saw an opportunity to make Netflix’s new post-apocalyptic fairy tale that much more relatable.
“Once the pandemic did hit, we’d already written everything,” Schwartz tells Inverse. “We were committed to the story, but it was very surreal.”
The story begins when a deadly virus destabilizes global civilization and turns humanity against itself out of fear, before fast-forwarding into a dangerous future where an unlikely duo makes their way across the ruins of America. But for a show set after the end of the world, Sweet Tooth is surprisingly hopeful.
“So many end-of-the-world stories are very hopeless and bleak,” Mickle says. “I didn’t want to live in that darkness for so long. As we’ve found with the pandemic, we have to tell stories about being able to get through it. The world has gone through dark times and incredible low points, but we always make it through.”
10 years before Sweet Tooth opens, “The Great Crumble” causes society to collapse. A disease called “the sick” spreads across the globe, wiping out millions as researchers struggle to determine the cause of another scientific mystery: the emergence of so-called “hybrids,” babies born with a combination of animal and human parts.
The show focuses on Gus (Christian Convery), a deer-boy living in a remote cabin with his protective father (Will Forte). Sheltered from the outside world, Gus possesses extrasensory abilities, heightened by his furry ears and still-growing antlers. When outsiders breach his home, Gus is suddenly thrust into a dangerous quest to find his mother. Accompanying him is Tommy Jepperd (Artemis Fowl’s Nonso Anozie), a lone wanderer who comes to care for the precocious hybrid.
Though there’s danger aplenty in this dystopia, Sweet Tooth shares its wide-eyed protagonist’s optimism and innocence. Across the show’s first season, the pair encounter human warmth and acts of kindness as well as your typical post-apocalypse monsters and marauders.
Mickle and Schwartz adapted Sweet Tooth from Bone author Jeff Lemire’s acclaimed DC/Vertigo comic book of the same name. Collaborating with Robert Downey Jr. and his wife Susan Downey, who both executive-produced through their Team Downey production company, all four expended a great deal of effort to ensure Sweet Tooth felt like a more warm-hearted kind of show, despite its post-apocalyptic setting.
“For them, it’s always about character. That’s first and foremost,” Mickle says of working with Team Downey. Fittingly for two creatives who’ve spent plenty of time suiting up for superhero movies, “Susan had a lot of opinions about the material on costumes.”
In an interview, Sweet Tooth’s co-showrunners discuss the series’ tone, what the Downeys brought over from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and why they chose to end Season 1 on a tense yet uplifting note.
When did you first encounter Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth comic?
Jim Mickle: I read it when it first came out, in 2009 or 2010, and I loved it. What Jeff was doing with nature and animals, pulling that into a post-apocalyptic story, was so fresh. I was always thinking, “Is there a movie to make out of this? Is there a way to bring it to the screen?’ But I never had quite the right canvas. Six years later, I was talking with Team Downey about trying to work together, and they asked if I’d ever heard of the comic because they thought there was a series in there. It was still on my shelf, so I reread it and fell back in love with it. But I also felt like the world had changed so much, and it was going to be hard to find a way into it, to make a show that felt as fresh as the comic book felt when it first burst onto the scene. We ended up making a pilot in 2019, Netflix greenlit us, Beth came on board, and we turned it into a season.
Beth Schwartz: I was finishing post-production on the final season of Arrow for The CW. I’d just had a baby, who was about six months old when I got a call from Warner Bros. They said, “You need to watch this pilot. We’d love for you to join the show, and we think you’re especially going to love it as a new mom.” They were 100 percent right! I watched Jim’s beautiful pilot, fell in love with Gus, and felt like it was so different from anything else I’d seen.
Team Downey knows a thing or two about adapting comics for the screen. How much of his Marvel expertise factored into discussing the tone and story of Sweet Tooth?
JM: For them, it’s always about character. That’s first and foremost. A lot of times, they’re great for — when you’re spitting out ideas, trying to spin a million plates — serving as a grounding mechanism. They know what’s important. It’s Gus, and it’s Gus and Jepperd. That’s always really helpful.
On the pilot, Susan had a lot of opinions about the material on costumes. [laughs] I remember thinking, “This is coming from somebody who’s married to someone who has to wear some awkward costumes.”
BS: I’d just come from another comic-book adaptation, which was completely different. Obviously, it was a superhero show, and we had 23 episodes in a season and burned through plot in almost every one of them. That was something that Downey, Jim, and I had to figure out. What’s the rhythm of the first season? How much plot do we go through in an episode? It became clear in the beginning that this was all about character. Their emotions and what they were going through trumped our plot and how fast we burned through story.
Beth, coming off Arrow, was it difficult to adapt another comic away from that world?
BS: For me, personally, it felt freeing to do something different. I was on Arrow for eight seasons, and I loved working on it. I definitely brought a lot of the tools I learned on Arrow over to Sweet Tooth. But it’s just such a different story in every way. Our hero is a child with antlers, and it’s tonally so different.
I don’t think we felt the pressure of adapting it to compete against other comic-book shows. We had such a rich IP that Jeff Lemire created, that we were able to take those characters and make it something of our own. As long as we all loved it, we were hopeful everyone else would feel the same.
Sweet Tooth arrives on Netflix at the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. Its apocalypse hits close to home. How has this past year changed your impressions of the series’ themes?
BS: One thing that I really took from Jeff Lemire was the theme of protecting your children. As a new mom, I related to hiding my child at a cabin in the woods and not letting anyone hurt him. That’s universal in a sense, no matter what’s going on in the world. Once the pandemic did hit, we’d already written everything, and we were committed to the story, but it was very surreal. We were starting to live through what we’d imagined our characters living through. It just made us, if anything, more able to relate to the characters.
“I related to hiding my child at a cabin in the woods and not letting anyone hurt him.”
JM: For me, it’s about hope. That became a theme early on. And Sweet Tooth coming out on Netflix now, when the world only just started reopening last weekend, is exciting. It made some of the storytelling easier, because you could shorthand certain things that the world already understands in a way it didn’t before.
Was one of those things, “Why is everybody wearing masks?”
JM: Yeah! And also how quickly everything went. The opening of the pilot was originally twice as long, but we know already what it looks like in a supermarket when all the flu medicine is gone.
Season 1 of Sweet Tooth — spoiler alert! — ends on a cliffhanger, with Gus captured by Dr. Singh (Adeel Akhtar) and General Abbot (Neil Sandilands), but it’s not the depressing final note you might expect, with Gus discovering other animal-human hybrids in captivity, like Wendy (Naledi Murray). How did you land on that ending?
BS: We wanted the end to feel hopeful while raising the stakes, to ensure it felt fulfilling as you watched the whole season. Very early on, we’d constructed that ending, and we always knew he’d meet Wendy. All the storylines would stay separate, but at the end, it would be shaken up and switch the characters around to be with other characters.
Gus always felt alone in a way, because he hadn’t met anyone like him. So it was important for us to end him with that hopeful feeling. Even in the darkest times, when you’ve been captured by the big bad and it seems like all hope is lost, there’s hopefulness in that darkness. That’s pretty much what the entire series is. We knew that ending very early on.
Sweet Tooth Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.