Spoiler alert: I’ve never read The Sandman.
I imagine that will be the reality for several Netflix subscribers encountering the series over the coming weeks and months. For us, The Sandman exists outside expectation, untethered from Neil Gaiman’s critically acclaimed and influential graphic novel series. There’s freedom in that lack of connection. We aren’t beholden to fidelity and accuracy concerns that often plague live-action adaptations. All The Sandman must offer is a compelling world that might spur us into expanding our engagement. (I imagine picking up the first issue is a good start.)
The Sandman is the story of Dream (Tom Sturridge), the ruler of The Dreaming, the world where all humans go when they sleep. Dream’s reign is interrupted when occult leader Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) captures and holds him hostage to revive his son. After a century passes, Dream escapes and returns to The Dreaming, only to find it deteriorating and nearly abandoned. With the help of his librarian and deputy Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), Dream seeks to reclaim his lost power and keep his kingdom – and humanity – from destruction.
For long-time fans of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s direct involvement in the series must be a comfort. Gaiman developed the project with David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg, both long-time DC collaborators. The team wrote the first episode, while Gaiman oversaw the series’ overall production – from writing to production design – to guarantee it didn’t stray far from his original vision.
That vision looks to be a complex meditation on humanity’s weaknesses, strengths, and inherent value. If so, The Sandman successfully realizes Gaiman’s intent for the small screen. The series develops an absorbing world that both contrasts and reflects our own. The pockets we see – the overwhelmingly large, ornate, and empty Dreaming throne room; Lucifer’s chambers overlooking the bowels of Hell; the charming home of Cain, Abel, and their gargoyle Gregory – sing with personality and possibility. They are places you want to revisit and explore further, and the tastes we get are just barely satisfying. One can only imagine how the hand-drawn versions compare.
Connecting these stark but memorable landscapes is an equally-compelling atmosphere that is moody but never miserable. It’s a tricky feat, especially considering how the titular character dresses in perpetual black. The Sandman practically begs to be self-serious and joyless. The series does play in the dark, fearlessly surveying humanity’s worst impulses. It tempers that potentially soul-crushing tone with whispers of joy, humor, strangeness, and optimism. The hopeful undercurrent could make the series ring false, but it impressively never does. It simply keeps it from miring in despair. (Not even when the character Despair pops up.)
The Sandman’s strongest and most memorable episodes reflect that tonal and thematic balance. “The Sounds of Her Wings” combines the stories of Dream’s interactions with his kind sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and the immortal Hob Gadling (Ferdinand Kingsley) into a brilliantly conceived episode about the importance of connection and vulnerability. “A Hope in Hell,” featuring the marvelous Gwendolyn Christie as Lucifer, is a tense battle of wits and grit that is as fun as cataclysmic. “24/7” is the most viscerally brutal episode but finds narrative space to reject John Dee’s bloody pessimism. “Playing House” offers the clearest example of a dream’s power and how it can fortify and weaken us.
The Sandman unfortunately suffers from a curse: it is so fascinating and thematically rich that its ten episodes don’t feel sufficient. Compared to other live-action adaptation series, this one feels downright economical. The Sandman’s storylines contained to the point of being stifling, with little room to sit with an episode’s consequences. It’s most apparent in the first arc, where Dream’s tool retrieval is a bit too tidy. It makes sense sometimes; who wants to spend more than 40 minutes in Hell? It also feels more like a convenience than a satisfying narrative choice. When there’s so much to explore, The Sandman’s expediency is disappointing.
The Sandman’s protagonist Dream is an easy character to get wrong. In a lesser actor’s hands, his detached stoicism and general passivity could read as dull and wooden. Tom Sturridge is thankfully not that kind of actor. The Tony nominee embodies Dream’s disengagement and regality but finds moments to show how it’s a mask created by tradition and fear. Sturridge’s slight shifts of that mask to reveal Dream’s sadness, anger, and amusement makes the character more intriguing than he had to be.
The Sandman has so many strong performances that it’s hard to acknowledge them. Vivienne Acheampong is the show’s steady hand and beating heart, emanating compassionate authority while readily being the most competent person in the room. Vanesu Samunyai shares similar qualities playing Rose, the dream vortex that shapes the season’s back half. On the villainous side, Boyd Holbrook’s enjoyment in playing The Corinthian is written all over his face, even through the sunglasses. Mason Alexander Park makes the most of their limited screen time as Desire, imbuing each scene with a slinky menace.
Separate from its source material, The Sandman is a strong fantasy-horror series that is involving and compelling enough to warrant several more seasons. I can’t speak to whether the series appropriately adapted the source material. It’s doubtful, but still possible that even Gaiman’s close eye couldn’t stop some things from getting lost in translation. Even if that is the case, The Sandman will likely introduce the original graphic novels to a new audience intrigued by what they saw on the screen. That alone makes The Sandman a dream of an adaptation.
The Sandman is currently streaming on Netflix.