‘Sweet Tooth’ Team Talks About Making a Pandemic Show a ‘Fairytale Dystopia’

Photo by Kirsty Griffin / 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Netflix’s “Sweet Tooth” follows a half-deer, half-human boy named Gus as he travels the country after a deadly pandemic wipes out much of humanity and allows nature to reclaim the world. Sound familiar? The show is based on the DC Comics series from the early 2010s and filmed its pilot in 2019, long before COVID-19 or face masks became part of our everyday lives.

However, in a bit of uncanny foreshadowing, the show’s writers incorporated elements of life amid a worldwide pandemic that would become eerily familiar to everyone involved.

Here, Variety speaks with with co-showrunners Jim Mickle and Beth Schwartz, executive producer Susan Downey and comic book creator Jeff Lemire about making the show during the pandemic and turning the gritty story into family-friendly fare.

Why did you want to adapt “Sweet Tooth”?

Jim Mickle: I love end-of-the-world stories and what Jeff did using that as a launching point to tell something completely different. Tying in the ideas of hybrids, nature and animals felt like such a twist on an apocalyptic story, yet it was all grounded in this very relatable human heart in Gus. I fell in love with him and thought if we could pull off a series that does what Jeff does in the comic, we can create something really special.

Beth Schwartz: I had just become a new parent, so when I saw Jim’s pilot, which was amazing and all about Gus and his father and not wanting his child to cross the fence and go out into the big, bad world, I really related to it. It pulled all my heartstrings.

Jeff, what was it like seeing your comic brought to life?

Jeff Lemire: It’s pretty magical. I wrote and drew the whole thing for three years in a room by my myself. To see it actually manifest in reality is pretty great. It was really interesting to see which aspects of the world Jim and the team latched onto and how they leaned into the hopefulness of the story and Gus’ innocence.

The comic is much darker and grittier, why did you decide to make the tone more family-friendly and light?

Susan Downey: The ambition was to create it for a family audience. We want the whole family to be able to watch together. We talked to Jeff Lemire about how Gus is our true north and how his journey and his relationship to Jep and this interesting cast of characters and challenges they meet along the way are what’s important. But, we did want to be able to take that great story and bring it to a much larger audience. That’s when we brought Jim Mickle on and we talked about creating this storybook or fairytale dystopia — this idea that if there was a drastic reduction in population, nature would take over again and it would be green and lush. We all felt confident, and Jeff gave us the blessing that we were keeping what was important to the storytelling and putting it in a more palatable environment.

How did you adjust to the real-life pandemic affecting production?

Schwartz: The pilot was already shot before the pandemic and we had broken the first season. We were in the writers’ room for two-and-a-half months before the pandemic started, and we switched from the actual writers’ room to the Zoom room. We didn’t change our storylines because the show isn’t really about the pandemic. It’s more about Gus’ journey to find his family and the aftereffects of what a worldwide pandemic can do. There were some details in terms of production that we were able to have more of a shorthand [with] because people know what it’s like to be living in a pandemic. We have some signs that say, “Six feet apart,” those kind of things that people can get right away. For some episodes, we were conscious of not having a ton of extras, but we didn’t really change our storylines at all.

Mickle: Weirdly, the show was our escape because all of a sudden we’re all on a Zoom screen together going through the craziness of last year. If anything, it allowed us to forget about the real world and go into Gus’ world for a little bit. And that was a happy, safe place for us all for months.

One scene that stuck out to me was when Gus and Jepperd encounter fellow survivors, who wear face masks when they first meet and eat dinner together. Were there other moments that were ripped from real life?

Mickle: That was written before COVID. During the pilot — again this was 2019 — we had a medical consultant that did a lot of talking about masks and when you would wear masks and when you wouldn’t. I remember thinking, “No one cares, no one knows,” not having any foresight at all. When it came to that scene, it was like, “Yeah, these people would be wearing masks. They don’t know anything about the world.” In Episode 3, one of the writers had this idea that some of the characters would have personalized masks, and I remember thinking that was when we had gone too far — “We’re jumping the shark and we can’t do this” — and then obviously that became an entire industry. [Laughs]

Schwartz: I remember the masks thing and thinking, “There’s no way that would be a reality. Who’s going to bejewel their masks?”

Mickle: If anything, it felt like all of a sudden there’s a whole bunch of exposition we don’t have to put into the show now. [Laughs] That was the most exciting part.

Did you ever think a show about a pandemic would hit too close to home for viewers?

Schwartz: It is so different from real life with a half-deer boy at the center of the show and, if anything, it’s a bright light to take us out of the darkness. We see a hopefulness in the show and what could be our future. To mirror what Jim said earlier, that’s what it was like for us working on the show. It was this bright light for us during a dark, uncertain time as we were in real life going through the pandemic. Hopefully we brought that to the screen and that’s what people will take away from it.

“Sweet Tooth” is streaming now on Netflix.