3 out of 5 stars

Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed comic-book series The Sandman ran for 75 issues between 1989 and 1996, influencing many other supernaturally-tinged stories on both the page and screen. A live-action adaptation’s been trapped in purgatory since the early-1990s, with talk growing stronger whenever something else indebted to Sandman becomes a success. In recent times, a Hollywood movie almost came to pass from Warner Bros. in 2016, shepherded by screenwriter David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight), but creative differences with potential lead Joseph Gordon-Levitt led to the studio turning their attention to prestige television instead…

The Sandman undoubtedly works better as a long-form narrative, versus having to condense its sprawling storylines into a two-hour film (or risk setting up an intended trilogy that doesn’t get completed). And with streaming giants prepared to throw wads of cash at intellectual properties with readymade audiences, especially if they fall loosely into the ‘superhero’ or ‘fantasy’ genre, it made perfect sense for Warner Bros. to partner with Netflix on an eleven-part season—that allegedly cost $15M per episode.

The first two episodes of The Sandman are sublime fantasy television. This is perhaps because origin stories are always fun and the sense of discovering a new world of imagination full of arcane lore is irresistible. I daresay the opening few hours have also been fine-tuned to near-perfection over the years, as most of the unmade screenplays took various stabs at adapting the first run of The Sandman comics before spinning off elsewhere. Written by creator Neil Gaiman himself, alongside David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg (Wonder Woman), “Sleep of the Just” sets up his universe in fine style…

A grieving British aristocrat called Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) performs an occult ritual intended to capture Death itself, but accidentally imprisons her brother Dream/Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), the Eternal god of the unconscious realm every living thing visits when asleep. Disappointed by his mistake but keen to capitalise on it as best he can, Roderick steals Dream’s powerful totems of office (a helm, a pouch of sand, a ruby), and spends the remainder of his life trying to bargain with the silent Dream from within his glass globe prison. Unfortunately, the absence of Morpheus from his kingdom of The Dreaming results in a bizarre epidemic of “sleepy sickness” across the world, infered to be largely responsible for many of the wars of societal problems that arose in the 20th-century.

This first instalment of The Sandman is a fantastic way to delve into this world, introducing Dream as a character whose refusal to speak while imprisoned gives him an immediate and deep sense of the uncanny. Sturridge is remarkable in this story because he’s asked to make us like and care for someone who not only doesn’t talk but is quite clearly not human. He does it entirely through stoic expressions and crouched body language, with his skinny frame doing a decent job of copying the comic-book character’s memorably emaciated appearance. The story also unfolds in a manner that draws you in remarkably well. Once Dream escapes and clearly has to reacquire the three missing totems that give him status amongst his peers, then repair his damaged realm after 106 years of neglect, audiences should be fully engaged in The Sandman as their next binge-watch.

Unfortunately, The Sandman doesn’t quite reach that early high again. The first five episodes, which adapt most of the first six issues, are certainly entertaining and fun to watch, but they’re progressively less exciting than what one expected to see based on the cinematic brilliance of the first couple of episodes. Despite each episode costing $15M, some of them don’t look much above what you’d expect to see when Sky adapt a Terry Pratchett novel for Christmas. And despite the amusement of them having to gender-swap John Constantine to get around copyright issues with that DC character, by turning him into Joanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman), this sassy young exorcist in a trenchcoat has only a minor role that made me wonder why they even bothered.

Indeed, a common feeling throughout these nine episodes is there’s not enough cohesion or focus. The first five episodes are the strongest because they boil down to Dream having to find his stolen totems, all while dealing with the twin threats of an escaped eye-gouging nightmare called the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) and the unstable son of Burgess who uses Dream’s stolen ruby to manipulate reality, John Dee (David Thewlis). Once this storyline resolves itself, despite keeping the fugitive Corinthian around for later resolution, The Sandman starts to engage with other comic-book tales that just aren’t as compelling.

While tastes will always vary, but I found the run of episodes dealing with Rose Walker (Kyo Ra), a young American girl who and “dream vortex” whose powers could match Morpheus, to be especially dull and a visual comedown after the grandiose visions presented earlier. Dream also loses much of his enigmatic appeal the more we spend time with him, sometimes coming across as more of a moody ruler learning to be compassionate than an ethereal being who’s lived for aeons. I don’t blame Tom Sturridge, who works wonders with the material, but it’s a shame the character and the stories he’s involved with grow progressively more humdrum.

When you’re literally going to Hell and duelling with Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) in a battle of wits, having to later swallow stories involving a “serial killer convention” where murderers convene to share tips and give talks like a Comic-Con for psychopaths, all while fawning over the Corinthian as some sort of folk hero, just have me tonal whiplash. It’s like Roald Dahl’s The Witches got thrown into the blender by mistake.

A lot of people single out episode 6, “The Sound of Her Wings”, as being a notable highlight of the show. It’s an episode where Dream accompanies his sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) over the course of a day and we see how she goes about her own business as a very different kind of Grim Reaper. Instead of a scythe-wielding skeletal demon, The Sandman‘s Death is a radiant and compassionate young black woman whose presence isn’t to be feared. It’s a welcome twist on expectations and I certainly enjoyed the episode, which also involves Dream’s centennial meetings with a man called Hob (Ferdinand Kingsley) he made immortal to see how an ordinary man would cope with such a power, but it’s also a strange mid-season oddity that doesn’t feed into much of anything else.

The same goes for the final episode, which is more of a bonus Netflix cleverly dropped shortly after the season appeared to end. The eleventh episode is split into two distinct stories adapting popular Sandman tales, beginning with the fantastic “Dream of a Thousand Cats”—a completely animated short about a Siamese cat whose kittens are drowned by a cruel owner, prompting her to seek answers for this injustice from Morpheus in feline form. This is undoubtedly a creative highlight of the season and a beautifully rendered version of one of the more popular comic-book stories. The longer part of the episode is “Calliope”, which in some ways feels like a remake of the Sandman’s premiere, only now it’s a man called Richard Madoc (Arthur Darvill) who has a god-like entity imprisoned for his own personal needs. Richard’s a best-selling author struggling with Writers’ Block, desperate to complete a second novel for his impatient publisher that can surpass his breakthrough work, who captures a Greek ‘Muse’ in the form of the beautiful Calliope (Melissanthi Mahut).

“Calliope” is another fine instalment and perhaps suggests The Sandman works best as single or two-part stories that sometimes may only justify a brief appearance by Dream to keep him sufficiently mysterious. It also has a lot to say about toxic masculinity and slavery, not to mention the pursuit of fame and riches at the expense of another person’s freedom and happiness. Darvill and Mahut are also fantastic and emotionally carry an episode that plays more like a spin-off, with a few nuggets of information about where a second season may be headed.

Overall, The Sandman is a strong adaptation of difficult material that’s been picked over and has fed into countless other stories since it came out. There are certainly moments where the stories being told can seem a little threadbare or predictable, which they weren’t 30 years ago, and other times when the show frankly veers too far into nonsense for my taste. And too many of the characters either have unsatisfying conclusions to their arcs, or don’t get enough screen time to leave much beyond an initial impression. The latter is especially true of Dream’s devious sister Desire (Mason Alexander Park), who is fantastically arch and camp as someone who clearly hates her brother and yearns to supplant him, but despite being set up as the true villain of the piece, Desire oddly melts away into irrelevance. For now, anyway.

Perhaps The Sandman will work best for those with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the source material, whose minds are subconsciously papering over any cracks, and who can see how things are likely to pan out in future seasons (if we get them). But as someone with only some familiarity to the comics, but who was bowled over by how The Sandman began, I found it often became frustratingly mediocre and sometimes actively unappealing thanks to some of its choices and tonal shifts.

UK USA | 2022 | 11 EPISODES | 16:9 4K | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Neil Gaiman, David S. Goyer, Allan Heinberg, Jim Campolongo, Austin Guzman, Ameni Rozsa, Lauren Bello, Heather Bellson, Alexander Newman-Wise, Vanessa James Benton, Jay Franklin & Catherine Smyth-McMullen.
directors: Mike Barker, Jamie Childs, Mairzee Almas, Andrés Baiz, Coralie Fargeat, Louise Hooper & Hisko Hulsing.
starring: Tom Sturridge, Boyd Holbrook, Vivienne Acheampong, Patton Oswalt (voice), David Thewlis, Charles Dance, Jenna Coleman, Gwendoline Christie, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Ferdinand Kingsley, Kyo Ra, Razane Jammal, Melissantha Mahut, Arthur Darvill, Joely Richardson, Stephen Fry & Mark Hamill (voice).