The Sandman, in many ways, is an ever most peculiar show; it delivers on its comic book premise, most strikingly with the visuals, while also being somewhat disconnected from Netflix’s high standards for big hit originals. The Netflix adaptation, consisting of 11 episodes, is a clear passion project for original comic creator Neil Gaiman, seeing as he’s heavily involved as executive producer and writer. Like the best of Gaiman’s fan-favored Sandman comics, the atmosphere here is consistently bleak and mystical, with dashes of humor and horror. A lot of this is thanks to Tom Sturridge who does a remarkable job of portraying a brooding and pale demenour throughout the entire season. Although completely necessary in portraying Morpheus, the ruler of all dreams and one of the powerful seven children of time and night known as the Endless, his performance can often seem one-note when stretched across an entire series.
The Sandman opens with Morpheus (Sturridge) narrating a series of dreams, introducing the core concepts of the waking and dreaming worlds. But soon after, Morpheus is captured during an Earth-bound ritual. He is held prisoner for more than a century. When he finally escapes his imprisonment, he must traverse across multiple otherworldly realms to fix the chaos his absence has caused. Most notably, a few of Morpheus’ prized yet deadly possessions, including his sand and helm, end up in the wrong hands.
This Netflix adaptation is broadly handsome in the way its shot, though its pairing with some rather out-there special effects is where it loses hold over the audience. In the more dream-like, fantastical settings, especially in the opening few episodes, it’s uncanny green screen. Blame should not be thrown to the visual effects team in these cases as it’s quite apparent that the framing and use of VFX are an attempt to mimic the comics almost panel for panel, it’s more of a direct choice that proves that what’s on the page doesnt always translate the same on screen. This is most apparent in the dream realm-set scenes. If you are looking for a pitch-perfect, pristine series this is not it, but The Sandman is still faithful enough to the source material to please its loyal fans.
The writing across the series is fairly sharp. It often sounds and feels like a work of prose, but unfortunately things never quite shape up as good as the words sound. When The Sandman tries to be funny, which is frankly rare, it becomes nearly laughable. In an early episode, after Morpheus escapes his prison, he returns to the dream world to reunite with some old friends. There is a running gag of a brother constantly killing his own sibling. They have a pet dragon-type creature, bad quips, and are clearly acting; British comedian Asim Chaudhry sadly drew the short straw here. A culmination of poor pacing, shabby effects, and not-so-convincing supporting performances often ruin such promising set pieces.
However, as The Sandman progresses, it becomes more and more gripping. The prime example of such is Episode 5 titled “24/7”, which follows the mysterious Dr. John Dee (David Thewlis) as he sits in a diner observing the humanity of a set group of locals. David Thewlis delivers the most nuanced performance of the entire cast as he plays a psychotic murderer, with David Fincher-like tones at play. Episode 5 acts almost as a standalone story focusing on the inner workings of human nature, the good and bad. The entire plot is set in a diner, featuring a random selection of new characters. Everything seems so natural and lived-in, partially down to the episode’s non-reliance on visual effects or anything distracting. It delves into the nitty gritty of each character’s emotional state, with a slightly mystical twist.
Also, it must be said, the juxtaposition of more realistic scenarios as presented in “24/7” is another excellent element that feeds into the dual nature of The Sandman, balancing the tangible with the unimaginable. To have such a grounded episode in the smack middle of the show’s many expansive fantasy stories works superbly in its favor, and is much needed. Compare this diner-set episode to the conversations with Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) in Hell and this stark, albeit intriguing, contrast couldn’t be more evident. It’s up to viewers to decide what aspect of The Sandman they like best, and if they rather mesh well at all.
The Sandman starts out at a weak pace but overcomes many of its hurdles throughout this first season. Though one thing that the series can’t escape from is unbelievable, green screen-heavy VFX. Luckily, The Sandman doesn’t rely on its dream sequences to make the show work as it’s more effective set pieces primarily take place in reality. This could be a real hit or miss for Netflix, depending on how the streamer decides to move forward with the second season that is apparently “all written and ready” according to Neil Gaiman. Binging The Sandman can be a quite drawling but also visceral experience – a decent start to a more promising adaptation.