Great For Neil Gaiman Fans, a Snooze For the Rest
There’s something about The Sandman that feels 25 years old, and not merely because the comics from Neil Gaiman ended 26 years ago. The new Netflix series feels like a time-traveler from some cultural moment between the mid-’90s and late 2000s, and its titular protagonist hearkens back to all the pale, brooding, gorgeous sad-boys of film and television — David Boreanaz in Buffy and Angel, Brandon Lee in The Crow, Aidan Turner of Being Human, Michael McManus in Lexx, Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, everyone in Twilight, and Johnny Depp in From Hell, Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands, and, well, pretty much every role outside Jack Sparrow.
The particular sad-boy of The Sandman goes by many names (Dream, Morpheus, Kai’ckul, The Sandman) but looks like an anorexic Nathan Fielder doing a Robert Pattinson impersonation. Played by Tom Sturridge, Dream is a bland, monochromatic mumble barely audible within the cacophonous noise of this show. There’s so much going on in The Sandman, and so many interesting characters, that’s it a real shame we have to follow this protagonist, who belongs back in 2008. Nonetheless, the series is a visually magnificent and well-directed show that will appeal to fans of the comics.
The Sandman Chases His Dreams
The Sandman was a series of 75 comics between 1989 and 1996 by Gaiman (with art by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and literally dozens of inkers, pencilers, and colorists), which displays his usual penchant for anthropomorphism. Predating American Gods (which does essentially the same gimmick), the story follows Dream, one of the many physical manifestations of abstract concepts like desire, destiny, despair, destruction, and delirium (because vague metaphysical notions always begin with the letter ‘D’).
Netflix is very faithful to the comics, though they present a more politically correct or ‘woke’ version which changes some of the more disturbing details of the older work, but this only affects the translation to a very negligible degree. Nonetheless, many of the storylines are followed, and some comic panels are actually recreated. Morpheus (aka Dream), the ostensible protagonist, is ensnared when some amateur occultists summon him instead of Death. They steal his bag of sand, ruby necklace, and H.R. Giger-looking helmet, and then seal his naked body in a glass ball for a century.
Morpheus escapes and discovers the world in fairly bad shape, with dreams and nightmares roaming free; it’s honestly a pretty clever way of explaining the frequent wars, fascism, genocides, and crises of the past hundred years, though The Sandman never taps into the potential of this idea, and is often mixed in its messaging about dreams. Morpheus proceeds to track down his three magical objects in order to fix the world, something which literally leads him to Hell and back.
The Silly Story of the Very Pretty Sandman
There isn’t much actual action in The Sandman. The violence that does occur is based on great ideas but, again, fails to translate very well onscreen. For example, Morpheus battles Lucifer by doing what amounts to an improv acting exercise; Lucifer says, “I’m a serpent and I bite your horse,” and Morpheus responds with, “I’m a bird of prey and I tear you with my talons.” Like many elements of the series, it attempts to dissect the nature and importance of storytelling, but onscreen it comes across as children playing make-believe.
Yes, it’s all pretty silly (this is a show where Patton Oswalt voices a bird, after all). This is generally the problem with adapting comics, especially within the booming fantasy genre; while something may feel natural on the page, it becomes entirely too self-serious, awkward, or ridiculous when brought to life with real actors. Lines like, “Tonight, humanity will sleep in peace,” or, “You dare suggest one such as I might need your companionship,” are told with such serious conviction that the show often feels childish, despite being laced with profanity, nudity, blood, and disturbing imagery.
That imagery is a real saving grace, though. Visibly expensive and lavishly produced, The Sandman mostly looks incredible, with imaginative CGI seamlessly blending into gorgeous set and costume designs. While there are far too many shots of characters walking (at a slow pace, from probably miles away) towards massive buildings, those structures do look amazing, and the environments that were developed for each setting are lovingly detailed. Director Jamie Childs covers the best episodes of the series, overseeing what was likely an army of crew members to create a visually stunning universe. His episode in Hell, the fourth of the series, is a highlight of dark, creative imagination.
David Thewlis, the Diner, and Sandman: 24/7
It helps that the fourth episode is followed by a real masterpiece of television and one that many fans of The Sandman comics were crossing their fingers over. The fifth episode, a kind of bottle movie of its own titled 24/7, occurs almost entirely within an all-night diner with a sparse cast of seven. While certainly not as affecting and disturbing as the comics, the episode is a perfectly directed slow-burn, a philosophical nightmare that stands out from the rest of the show.
One of the main reasons that the one-two punch of the fourth and fifth episodes is so impressive is David Thewlis, a great actor who elevates everything he’s in (Naked, Fargo, An Inspector Calls). These are the episodes in which he’s most prominent, and it’s clear how crucial he is to their success. He plays John, the man now in possession of Morpheus’ ruby, which he’s now using to eliminate all lies (or dreams) from the world. The episode escalates into a whirlwind of tension and terror, culminating in some harsh philosophical truths tantamount to what David Byrne writes in The New Sins — “We don’t want honesty, we want better fictions.”
Unfortunately, even though that episode ends with what seems like global catastrophe, the show simply resets for its next (and worst) episode, and the remaining runtime of The Sandman is somewhat of a slog. The final couple of episodes pick up the suspense and can be quite fun, but unmemorable on the whole.
The Unadaptable Sandman on Netflix Works For Fans
The Sandman was considered one of the unadaptable texts for an arguably good reason, with storylines that jump across centuries, focus on wide casts of characters, blur linear narratives, and deal with themes that are intellectually stimulating but untenable in practicality. The new series, developed by Neil Gaiman, David S. Goyer, and Allan Heinberg, does an admirable job of trying to piece together The Sandman comics, relying upon the Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll’s House stories to assemble a coherent narrative, but it simply lacks the thought-provoking, disturbing, and gripping elements of its source material.
This is not to say that The Sandman is an awful show. It’s visually resplendent and brings several great characters to life thanks to some excellent direction and design choices. Serious fans of the comics will likely enjoy it a lot, experiencing the rush of watching familiar scenarios brought to life. They have the advantage of foreknowledge, however; if one goes into The Sandman blind, it might feel like a rambling mess cobbled together from the outtakes of Twilight knock-offs and late ’90s goth movies. Therefore, The Sandman almost succeeds in dreaming up what readers have already imagined for more than 25 years but fails to let new audiences dream, too.
All 10 episodes of The Sandman, produced by PurePop Inc., The Blank Corporation, Phantom Four, DC Entertainment, and Warner Bros. Television, are streaming on Netflix now.