Gus may have antlers like a deer, but he’s a puppy dog at heart. The main character of Netflix’s new series Sweet Tooth, based on the comic by Jeff Lemire, is a young boy struggling to survive in a world ravaged by a pandemic. But while the world around him descends into chaos, Gus, played by Christian Convery, never loses his sense of wide-eyed optimism. His ears perk up — literally — if he hears about chocolate or candy apples, and he has an almost naive belief in people who shouldn’t always be trusted. At a time when we’re inundated with grim post-apocalyptic stories about how dark humanity can get, Sweet Tooth and its adorable lead offer something very welcome: hope.

Most of the set-up is familiar territory. A pandemic has killed off much of the human race, and those left behind are attempting to rebuild something resembling a society, some via force, others through community. What makes Sweet Tooth different are creatures called hybrids: human-animal mixtures that first appeared (birthed from human parents) at the same time the “sick,” as it’s called, began killing people. They’re absolutely adorable little things that would make Anne Geddes proud. But most people can’t seem to look past the apparent connection between hybrids and the pandemic — and this doesn’t bode well for the hybrids.

Gus doesn’t know much about any of this. At the outset of the show, the deer-child lives in an isolated cabin with his father, who teaches him what he’ll need to know to survive. Gus is forced to learn a series of rules — mostly, they involve running away from danger and staying quiet — while his dad teaches him how to farm, fix things, and even read via handmade versions of classic books he rewrites from memory. Gus believes that the world outside of their charmed plot of land is consumed by fire. Because of this, he’s never supposed to go beyond the fence that surrounds them. But, for reasons that I won’t spoil (but which you can probably guess), Gus ends up leaving the property and traveling with a big man known primarily as Big Man (Nonso Anozie) in search of the mother he’s never actually met.

Sweet Tooth starts slow, and it’s better off for it. Early on, the show doesn’t seem too concerned with the larger mysteries of the sickness, the hybrids, or how the two connect. There’s a side story involving a troubled doctor that becomes more important later on, but for the first few episodes the show is almost entirely about Gus. First, his almost idyllic life at home, as he celebrates birthdays with new books and handmade stuffed animals. The vibe is warm and comforting, with lots of cozy sweaters, wood cabins, and roaring fireplaces — and just a hint of danger lurking in the background. (Executive producer Amanda Burrell previously described the show’s aesthetic as “storybook dystopia.”) Even after he ventures out into the big, scary outside world, things aren’t particularly dark; this isn’t the kind of post-apocalyptic world littered with discarded bodies and horrible monsters. It’s our world, just a bit quieter and greener. And with a few roving gangs.

It’s not just the aesthetic that makes the show inviting, though. It’s Gus himself. He’s such a sweet and trusting kid that you can’t help but root for him. Even when things get dark — and they will — he maintains a sense of optimism that’s rare for this kind of story. I especially love that you can see his mood; Gus is mostly human, but, as mentioned before, he has the antlers and ears of a deer. So when he’s feeling sad or excited, his ears will perk up or lay flat depending on his emotional state. It’s adorable.

Photo by Kirsty Griffin / Netflix

Gus being this warm, comforting emotional core is important, because Sweet Tooth does eventually reveal its darker side. After a few episodes, the layers start to peel back, revealing things like militarized forces hoarding supplies, the systematic hunting and exploitation of hybrid children, and well-meaning doctors who will do anything, no matter how grisly, to find a cure for the virus. These are balanced out by other factions, like a zoo that’s been transformed into a hybrid sanctuary, and a rowdy army of kids living free of adult supervision.

The problem is that most of this is crammed into the second half of the eight-episode season, throwing off the pacing. Sweet Tooth steadily goes from a slow burn that lingers on characters and moments, to a race to explain the many mysteries of the disease, hybrids, and Gus’s origin. The season also ends on a massive cliffhanger, making it feel a bit like a prologue, rather than a standalone story.

At its most confident, Sweet Tooth is remarkable. Post-apocalyptic settings are so commonplace that they’re almost generic at this point; grim, gray worlds punctuated by blood and gore (and the occasional zombie). Sweet Tooth manages to carve out its own space, one that’s incredibly inviting. I just wish it kept up that feeling through the later half of the season. When the show devolves into mystery and action, it loses much of what makes it unique — but at least Gus is still there to help you make it through.

Sweet Tooth debuts on Netflix on June 4th.

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