When I’m not writing about hurricanes and activists, I’m usually cozied up in front of my TV, binging a show. My latest obsession has been Netflix’s new sci-fi thriller Sweet Tooth. It’s an eight-episode post-apocalyptic series that follows a young boy, Gus, who’s part human and part deer.
The show is also an allegory for our various ecological crises—and the power of the youth who are determined to save the world.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we love science fiction. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. If you haven’t already watched Sweet Tooth, stop here! Spoilers are ahead. Come back after you’ve had a chance to binge. You won’t regret it.
The world’s first national park was Yellowstone. It doesn’t feel like coincidence that this is where the new Netflix series Sweet Tooth begins. The show trails Gus (Christian Convery, Pup Academy), a hybrid boy who’s half-human half-deer. In this world, all babies are now born hybrids, which makes them immune to a virus that has wiped out most of mankind. Gus journeys away from the only home he’s known—a cabin in Yellowstone National Park—to unearth his roots and explore the world from which his late father (Will Forte, The Last Man on Earth) tried so hard to shield him. Unbeknownst to him, more bad humans than good remain—and they don’t exactly accept his kind.
Still, Gus manages to find endless beauty, wilderness, family, friendship, and hope that not all is lost. The show winds up feeling like an adventure for viewers, too—especially with its parallels to real life. Deadly virus? Check. Marine pollution? Check. Melting glaciers? Check. Dumb, selfish grown-ups? Check! Sweet Tooth contains all the ingredients that make for impactful entertainment. It delivers the audience a message around environmental stewardship, activism, and diversity without force-feeding it down anyone’s throat. The show’s message is subtle and nuanced; that’s what makes it so powerful. We need more shows like this to help us grapple with the climate crisis.
In fact, our world’s feeble state helped inspire the show. The timing of Sweet Tooth’s release may feel tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pilot was made back in 2019. The same forces that scientists suspect caused the novel coronavirus—the destruction of wildlife habitat, urbanization, and unchecked development—had been degrading our planet (and society) decades before we went into lockdown. This terrifying future helped inspire Jeff Lemire, who wrote the original DC comic books the show is based on, said Amanda Burrell, an executive producer on Sweet Tooth.
“He just had his first son—by the way, named Gus,” Burrell said. “And it was a reflection of a lot of fear that he had around where the world was heading and the kind of darkness he was most fearful of his son encountering in the world.”
While the show is still pretty damn dark, it takes a more hopeful approach than the book. For instance, the show introduces us to the Animal Army, a group of tech-savvy orphans who are determined to save the hybrids—even if that means killing a bunch of evil grown-ups. The show’s creators looked to the generation of young climate activists “who seem so clear on what we have to fight for” as inspiration for the army’s take-no-shit attitude, Burrell said. The severity of the ecological crises is clear to the youth; their futures are at stake. It’s no coincidence that the creators made hybrids children. It allows for the human children to more easily connect with the hybrids; they don’t look at hybrids with the scowl that so many of the adults do. They understand what the hybrids represent: harmony with nature.
“I think people are born into the world with a level of empathy and connection to the Earth that we potentially brutalize out of them,” Burrell said. “It is about the larger representation of those who are more deeply connected to Earth.”
The army’s leader is Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen, The Lovely Bones) whose real name we discover toward the season’s end is Rebecca Walker. She is, arguably, the human who feels this connection the deepest in the show, especially after meeting Gus. There’s a scene where she describes to him the extent of what humans have done to the planet. She said:
“Hybrids are how the Earth survives. Before the virus, Earth was dying. Humans—grown-ups—had ruined it all for their own selfish needs, leaving us with nothing… Did you know that before the virus came, the water wasn’t blue? That’s because they filled the water with trash. The sky, too. But once kids like you were born, the Earth could start to heal. You can live without taking. You can keep the Earth alive.”
The series is full of scenes where nature has taken over, underscoring its resilience. It’s a powerful way to bring home the consequences of how Western civilization treats Earth today. We must recognize that not all cultures abuse the planet. The show was shot in New Zealand where the Māori culture runs deep. The show couldn’t help but be infused with the Māori people’s “deep sense of reverence for the natural environment,” Burrell said.
Still, none of the environmental themes or messages are overwhelming. The entire show is based on fantasy—a fantasy so outlandish that it’s easy to separate from the real world. Dig a little deeper, though, and the parallels are irrefutable. Sweet Tooth’s effective use of allegory can help us connect it back to our world without feeling too critical of ourselves, said Dr. Beth Karlin, the founder and CEO of See Change Institute, which uses social science to assess how media can affect behavioral change.
“Climate change is so hard for us to wrap our heads around because each and every one of us can be a hero and each and everyone one of us is the villain,” Karlin said.
The show succeeds at character development, showing how people can change—for the better or for the worse. You see this with Jepperd (Nonso Anozie, Cinderella), whom Gus calls Big Man. Jepperd used to hunt and kill hybrids, but he takes a different path, eventually meeting Gus and growing attached to him. A similar transition happens with other characters, too, which helps the audience relate to them.
“The most effective type of story is not just one where the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad but one where you see a change of heart,” said Karlin, who watched the show and was just as impressed with it as I was.“I love that our dystopia and sci-fi stories have evolved into these complex, realistic stories that let all of us play with, This is where we are right now. Now, what do I do today—whether I’m a climate skeptic or a climate champion? I’m probably, as a climate champion, not doing enough, and I’m probably, as a climate skeptic, not that bad, and I have a chance to turn around at any moment and do more.”
These are the types of stories that start a shift in consciousness. The fact that Sweet Tooth is available on a dominant platform like Netflix—where it’s remained in the top 10 in the U.S.—just makes it even more so. Still, individual shifts in consciousness or behavior don’t always translate to social or political change, cautioned Ursula Heise, the interim director of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, where she largely studies biodiversity themes in media.
She hasn’t yet watched Sweet Tooth but recognizes the limitations—and potential—books, shows, and movies hold in disseminating environmental information. She thinks back on The Day After Tomorrow or Avatar. We didn’t see widespread climate or environmental policy pass after these films came out in the aughts.
“I don’t think we know for sure that it really creates the political change that we need,” Heise said. “That’s one of the limits of any individual story if you look at it but also a good argument for why we need repeated and different kinds of storytelling.”
So give us more Sweet Tooths! The planet demands it! This show goes beyond the typical sci-fi post-apocalyptic film. It offers us the promise of the next generation. It invites us to listen to what they have to say. Most importantly, Sweet Tooth invites us to speak to one another about what kind of world we want to leave behind for the youth. It creates the space for the climate-anxious to release some emotion and for the climate-skeptical to engage.
We have no idea what’s in store for a future where ice sheets melt. We have no idea what ancient viruses are hiding in the permafrost. Perhaps the birth of human-animal hybrids isn’t even so fantastical. What is unimaginable is a world that can survive all the damage we’re inflicting. Stories like Sweet Tooth help remind us what’s at stake—and the power we have to do something about it.