If you've been dreaming of a perfect onscreen version of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, you're going to have to dream a bit longer, and a bit harder. Netflix's take on the brilliant comic book series has its moments of excellence, but it also suffers from uneven pacing and mountains of exposition. The result isn't a snooze by any stretch of the imagination. Unfortunately, it isn't a masterpiece on the level of the comics either.
The titular Sandman is Dream (Tom Sturridge), also known as Lord Morpheus: the black-cloaked, raspy-voiced embodiment of all dreams and storytelling. Dream is one of the Endless, a family of powerful forces that includes Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Desire (Mason Alexander Park). Unfortunately, when we first meet him, he's been captured by mortals dabbling in powerful magic. During the century of Dream's captivity, his realm — the world of dreams, also called the Dreaming — falls into chaos, along with the waking world.
When Dream does manage to escape, he must regain the magical tools he's lost — his pouch of sand, his helm, and his ruby — and put the world back in balance. His allies include Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), the chief librarian of the Dreaming, and Matthew (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a raven. His enemies are many, but chiefest among them is the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), a sunglasses-sporting nightmare wreaking havoc on the waking world. There are a lot more characters to keep track of, as well as a lot of lore — and that proves to be one of The Sandman's biggest challenges.
The Sandman comics have long been considered unadaptable given their grand scope and immense cast. Netflix's version proves that the comics are, in fact, adaptable. More than that, this series is intent on reminding us just how faithful of an adaptation it it. It lifts dialogue from the comics word for word and recreates many panels, such as Dream's first appearance in the waking world, in stunning detail.
Sometimes that faithfulness ends up working to The Sandman's advantage, but at many times it does not. Similar to the comics, the initial arc of the show is how Morpheus can get his things back once he is free, and also how he must go about setting the Dreaming back in order, as well as rectifying the chaos in the waking world his absence allowed. But also like in the comics, once that arc has concluded, he’s left to wonder what’s next, and what’s the meaning of it all. An understandable conundrum, but jarring midway through a season. The first half of The Sandman and the last half end up feeling like two completely different shows, making for an uneven viewing experience.
"The Sandman" struggles under the weight of its own world building.
The Sandman also struggles under the weight of its own world building, doing its best to cram exposition into conversations at every opportunity. In early episodes, this exposition also comes in the form of Dream's near-constant voice-over. Thankfully, this tactic disappears quickly. However, when The Sandman's characters are constantly reminding us of who they are and what they do — sometimes even unnecessarily recapping the previous episode's events — we lose valuable time getting to know them. They risk becoming flat signposts telling us how to experience the story instead of fleshed-out characters inhabiting the world. And when these characters include personifications of Dreams and Death, wouldn't you rather they be as fully formed as possible?
The Sandman is a collection of truly great moments strung together by awkward stretches of time spent maneuvering our key players into place. For every scene on the level of Dream's tense confrontation with Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) or a drag performance from John Cameron Mitchell himself, we get slow-moving exposition that bogs down the show's pace. We don't need to be reminded of the rules of the Dreaming for the umpteenth time — can we just go back to the serial killer convention?
The same goes for The Sandman's visuals. So much of this show is beautiful and comic accurate, from the basement where Dream is held to Desire's iconic palace, which is a gargantuan sculpture of Desire themself. Sequences where Morpheus moves through others' dreams are clear stand-outs, full of clever visual storytelling that captures the wonderfully nebulous quality of dreams. Unfortunately, many of the scenes in the waking world lack that imagination or character, resulting in bland, lifeless shots that make you wish you were back in the Dreaming.
One of the show's best qualities is its cast, which delivers strong, committed performances across the board.
One of The Sandman's best qualities is its cast, which delivers strong, committed performances across the board. Sturridge anchors the show, capturing Dream's ethereal qualities and his stubborn resistance to change. Howell-Baptiste shines as a kind, empathetic incarnation of death, Park is delightfully seductive and menacing as Desire, and Christie's coolly sinister take on Lucifer will make you wishing we'd seen more of her. Finally, I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm obsessed with Holbrook's performance as the Corinthian. This is a villain who is both unabashedly evil and having the time of his life. Making him a bigger presence earlier on is one of The Sandman's smartest adaptation choices.
The Sandman is far from perfect, yet I respect it for straddling fantasy and horror and for taking some big swings in bringing such challenging source material to life. Not every show has itself figured out by Season 1 — even The Sandman comics didn't find their footing right out of the gate.
I bring this up because Netflix is notorious for canceling shows that don't meet its mysterious standards after one season. This is not a fate I wish on any show still perfecting itself, nor is it a fate I wish on The Sandman. From its (sometimes detrimental) adherence to the comics to its excellent cast, The Sandman deserves to continue stretching its wings into the rest of Gaiman's weird and wonderful story.
The Sandman is now streaming on Netflix.