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.

Similarly, although the series leans so heavily into a generational civil war, as it develops, it does not—or cannot—sustain its divisions.

Despite the supposed clean-slate offered by an apocalypse, the past continues to shape and inform the world in unforeseen ways. Institutions of family endure, subverting anti-natalist sentiments. Children are upheld not as enemies but subjects—participants—in our hopes.

The supposed natural order of conflict between the generational groups is not what it seems. By the end of the first season, the hybrids are revealed not to be an act of God or nature, but a lab experiment gone wrong. Jeppard, Sweet Tooth’s protector, turns out to be a former Last Man seek- ing redemption. The Millennials, for all their desire to protect the hybrids, are shown to be immature and faddish. Our titular hero, Sweet Tooth, has ‘hope coming out of his pores’, not because he’s a chosen one, but because he was protected from the woes of the world by his father. Leadership comes, ultimately, from the adults taking charge, not capitulating to a child saviour.

Much like today, generational conflict is more meme than reality. But it still makes a potent fantasy. Sweet Tooth re- minds us that the way to survive in a crisis is not to fragment generations, to pit them against each other, or to burn them down, rather it is the relationships, collaboration, and solidarity between these generations that will see us through. A little bit of fairy-tale and a healthy dollop of intergenerational collaboration might sweeten the medicine.

Rowan Light

Rowan Light

Rowan Light is a lecturer at the University of Canterbury and a historian of Australia and New Zealand, specialising in the Twentieth Century. His doctoral research explores imperial and post-imperial remembrance of the First World War; in particular, the emergence of postwar national commemorations from 1965 to the Anzac Centenary in 2015. Rowan’s history of Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand will be published in 2019 and his work has been published in Australian Historical Studies, the Melbourne Journal of History, and the New Zealand Journal of History.