Let’s get this out of the way right up top because I’m sure it’s going to be first comment in every place this review will be read. Yes, I own the comic. No, I have not read it. Yes, I am aware that this completely changes my experience with the material. And yes, I have no frame of reference for what was changed, what was missing, or how or why the comic did it better or worse. “The Sandman” to me only exists as a streaming series available to watch that happens to based on a comic I have no vested interest in currently. This is very important, as your relationship with the mythos will greatly determine your experience, interpretation, and how much or little you take from it. And even more so the impression that it leaves on you.
Regardless of where you land (good or bad), the series is an experience. Vastly immersive and constantly ever-expanding world building exercise of fantasy, gods and monsters, and everything in between. From the dreaming to the waking world, the stories seemed be as complex and endless as the immortal beings themselves, making the show a lot to take in for anyone and hard to pin down on any kind of definitive take away. “The Sandman” transforms the unadaptable comic into a deeply flawed, sometimes excruciatingly meandering but strangely intriguing binge-worthy Netflix series.
Based on the graphic novel series by acclaimed and award winning creator Neil Gaiman, “The Sandman” is developed for television by David S. Goyer, Allan Heiberg, and Gaiman himself. Gaiman serves not only as a creative consultant but as a creator, writer, and executive producer. This is important, because a lot of the most fervent fans have been in sort of a gatekeeper battle with the series’ own creator, which is a fun explosive look at current film and adaptive discourse. Watching Gaiman argue with die hard fans on Twitter for “gatekeeping” his own work is akin to “Fight Club‘s” ‘his name is Robert Paulson,” in which your own followers suddenly know more than the man that created it all. None of this is all that pertinent to the overall functionality of “The Sandman,” but it’s worth mentioning that the entire series has the original creators fingerprints all over it and has been staunchly defended by him consistently. This doesn’t make the series above reproach, but it does eliminate critiques of gender swapping, character changes, and general arguments over what should or should not have been left untouched.
What this allows us to do is accept “The Sandman” as is, and only praise or critique it for what it is trying to accomplish within its own medium instead of constantly holding it up to its iteration is a different context. Arcs and episodes constantly shift without warning, and are trying desperately to pack as much in as possible without much regard for whether or not it all makes sense to the laymen. For the most part it does, and “The Sandman” can be summed up rather simply: There is humanity, and then there is a different plane in which a group of immortals known as The Endless represent anthropomorphic versions of all things that make us human. Destiny, Desire, Despair, Death, and yes, Dreams. All of these entities have their own realms and purpose, but when The King of Dreams is inadvertently captured by a human magician, it sets both the dream world and the waking world into chaos. What happens when the one who controls our subconscious is suddenly unable to save us from our sleeping selves? Or worse yet, what happens when we can’t leave the dream we’re end because there’s no one there to wake us up or remind us we’re dreaming?
These are all things that “The Sandman” tackles within its first 5 episodes. Netflix has always had an episode problem, namely trying to lock down the right quantity without damaging the quality. This show somehow manages to introduce a new problem, one that is more about the massive amount of content its trying to pack into every episode and the disjointed way it’s all structured. The entire series is structured as 5 episodes for one arc, two filler episodes that feel like they exist in a different show with the same characters (more of a “The Adventures of The Sandman and Friends” than “The Sandman” series) followed by another 3 episode arc. This causes a lot of “wait…what’s happening now? Who is that? What is this show about again?” It has a built in knowledge check without telling the viewer we’re shifting storytelling gears. Characters are introduced, made to be important only to be wrapped up suddenly to make room for more characters. Or characters are introduced and then abandoned for large chunks of the series, only to reappear as a vital plot point in the next arc.
Some of this character musical chairs is more due to the insane amount of content “The Sandman” is trying to adapt and make consumable for general audiences. You can feel it desperately trying to strike that balance between appealing to fans of the comics while creating new fans of the show. And it largely works, as “The Sandman” has no shortage of intrigue and bingeability. But it also riddles the series with countless flaws and baffling choices that leave you firing up the next episode more out of confusion and frustration rather than excitement for what comes next. I get it, adapting the source material is an impossible task for anyone, even Gaiman himself. But there is a constant push and pull between the intrigue of the story at hand and the execution of that story visually serialized. Make no mistake, the world IS interesting, and more of its strength than weakness. It has a little of everything: dreams, nightmares, magic, demons, hell, Lucifer, enchanted objects, even a talking raven voiced by the always delightful Patton Oswald.
These things should all come together into a magical fantasy world we can’t stop living in, but instead it is a constant push and pull between incredible intrigue and plodding world building. If Netflix was ever going to truly double down on an expanded universe, “The Sandman” seems like a much better choice than say, oh I don’t know, “The Gray Man.” Instead of packing a menagerie of colorful characters, world altering events and psychotic villains with skewed moral compasses into 5 episodes, the whole first arc of the series should just be season 1. We’d likely learn far more about the Burgess connections, The King of Dreams, the chaos and damaged caused by his absence in both worlds, more time with The Corinthian and perhaps some other strays, more time with Johana Constantine, and even meet some of the other siblings along the way to set up for what comes next. There’a close to 75 volumes of stories of source material to pull from. “The Sandman” adaption can and should’ve taken its time to explore rather than race through the world building construction.
Because it doesn’t quite get the breaths it needs to take, nothing that happens, good or bad, resolved or not allows for viewers to truly connect with anything or anyone. By the time we’re settling in with one character and their story, they get whisked away into the background to make room for whatever comes next. This should be exciting, but it instead becomes frustrating because we are never truly sure who or what we’re supposed to be rooting for or doing here in the first place. Everything is just sort of happening all at once, and deciphering vast worlds with countless characters without a reliable narrator or even likable one makes it difficult to really sink your teeth in completely. You just want more, but not necessarily more of what the show is serving you. It is a really strange place to be in, where you can’t wait for something to end because you’re so confused about what you’re suppose to be taking away from it all, but so fascinated by the world that’s being created you don’t want to turn it off. That’s a tall order for any viewer, casual or die hard.
It’s not all a pandora’s box of indecipherable fantasy. “The Sandman” has two incredible strengths going for it: the absolutely stunning cinematography and the powerhouse cast firing on all cylinders. Cinematographers Will Baldy, George Steel and Sam Heasman deliver a truly dazzling and visually stunning immersion into the world of dreams. Color schemes both dark and vibrant are a feast for the eyes, and as much as one may struggle with narrative execution, this show demands visual engagement on a deep and unwavering level. You can’t look away even when you’re not sure what you’re suppose to be looking at.
The cast is also doing a ton of heavy lifting here, expertly setting into their roles and really taking it upon themselves to make the most of each and every character. Tom Sturridge as Morpheus/Dream/King of Dreams is particularly unnerving, guiding us through the worlds and planes with a sort of stoic calm with a storm emotion brewing behind his constantly searching eyes. Sturridge does well to constantly maintain the balance between being a literal immortal who is clearly not human but also as someone who is constantly trying to understand and learn from humanity itself. He is a being desperate for connection but not at the expense of his purpose, and this turmoil presented would be unwatchable were it not such capable hands as Sturridge.
Boyd Hollbrook as the Corinthian is particularly haunting and charming, as he is kind of an overarching villain throughout the story and is clearly having a blast with this character. Vivienne Acheampong as Lucienne is another stand out, acting a loyal servant who also isn’t afraid to call out the king when he’s being a petulant child (which he does more often than I think even Gaiman would like to admit). We also get terrific performances from David Thewlis, Jenna Coleman, Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer (who is absolutely perfect and I welcome more of her as the Morningstar in any and all upcoming or unannounced seasons. Seriously, she’s diabolically delightful), Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death (one of the best iterations of Death I’ve seen in a really long time), and yes, even Mark Hamill voicing a giant pumpkin head in The Dreaming. The cast almost makes up for the disjointed and disconnected story telling, and this isn’t even all of them that stand out.
Overall, “The Sandman” isn’t a bad show. In fact, it’s actually a really good show that is well made, well shot, well acted, and at times, really well paced and intriguing. But it’s also deeply flawed and exhausting, and more often than not feels empty and void of purpose. I know that’s what Morpheus begins to feel about halfway through the series, but viewers should only be outsiders experiencing his emotions, not physically feeling the exact same way. There is enough here to recommend to someone, but also enough to understand someone not being able to make it all the through to the end. The series asks a little too much of its viewers and doesn’t give us enough of a foundation or relatable character to feel as connected to the story as we might expect or want.
This show is about a lot and very little at the same time, and leaves you without someone to guide you through the more muddied waters the longer the show goes on. It’s a lot of world building without a real sense of self or purpose, which leaves the series in that very weird place of not being able to look away but also wanting things to wrap up or come together quickly so you can move on. It’s frantic but calm, interesting but listless, fascinating but boring, complex yet simple, and too much but not enough.
I guess “The Sandman” really is what dreams are made of. Hopefully Netflix will make a season 2 announcement soon.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“The Sandman” is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix. You can watch the trailer below.