This telling line, delivered by the narrator around the halfway mark of Netflix’s TV series Sweet Tooth, conveys much of the show’s surprising charm and commentary on our contemporary obsession with generational conflict. Our contemporary culture regards past generations with a mix of nostalgia and horror. The reality is far more fruitful—and hopeful.
Sweet Tooth, adapted from a comic book series, depicts a post-apocalyptic world in which human society has collapsed in the face of a deadly virus. Babies born after ‘the great crumble’ are ‘hybrids’—half-human, half-animal. The remaining adult survivors blame them for the pandemic and hunt them for experimentation. Our protagonist is the half-deer-half-human Gus AKA Sweet Tooth who searches for his mother in the wastelands of Colorado joined by a band of misfits. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but with a faun-boy, better lighting, and a pop soundtrack.
A major appeal or chagrin of the show is its obvious adaptation of contemporary tropes of generational conflict.
The remnants of humanity fall into generational factions. Boomers who, presumably, caused the catastrophe (insert here any generational gripe – COVID-19 lockdowns, climate crisis, housing shortage) continue to live in the decaying ruins of suburbia, hosting dinner parties and burning each other alive to avoid catching the virus. The hybrids are Gen Z. Like the dreams of the Snapchat generation, they are victims of their own, irreducibly unique identities (think intersectionality, mental health, isolation).
In between, Gen X and Millennials—the show’s creators and audience, respectively—opt for a kind of militancy. Gen X become ‘The Last Men’ who hunt the hybrids for profit and scientific experimentation in service of the Boomers. Millennials live in a permanent adolescence of video games and parties, while fighting to protect the hybrids whom they idolise as ‘perfect just the way they are.’ The show dangles in front of the audience the idea (desire?) that the hybrids and virus are Mother Nature’s revenge for Boomer hubris.
The patent fantasy of Sweet Tooth makes it a useful arena of inter-generational angst. The show is a very much an adult fairy-tale: our cherubic deer-human hybrid boy delivers quippy one-liners while the next scene depicts the literal vivisection of children.
Tolkien famously reflected that what makes fairy-tales compelling—and challenging—is that they allow us to peer deeply into a part of our own society, in this case stories of generational conflict, and recognise that we are not ‘slaves’ to it.