More than anything, the show proves that Gaiman was right. Netflix’s The Sandman (which was produced by Warner Bros. Television with Heinberg as the showrunner and Gaiman heavily involved) is a faithful and loving adaptation of a comic that many hold dear, and the series is able to retain much of the source material’s strengths without making any serious missteps that would cast a shadow over the whole enterprise. As far as precarious fantasy adaptations go, the end result is much closer on the spectrum to Peter Jackson‘s The Lord of the Rings than it is to, say, that misguided Dark Tower movie that came out a few years ago. So Sandman fans, be happy — the show you deserve is the show you’re getting. Whether that can translate into cross-over appeal is another matter, and I have my own concerns about this strange and offbeat series getting lost in the shuffle amongst the giant Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones prequels that are also about to drop. But maybe it’s wise not to underestimate it. Gaiman’s story has proven to be stalwart enough to endure on the page, inspiring millions of readers, and there’s no reason that can’t ultimately hold true for the TV show as well.
The Sandman stars two-time Tony Award nominee Tom Sturridge as Dream, a.k.a. Morpheus, a godlike being who rules over the nighttime dreams of humans. The show starts as the comic does, with Morpheus becoming imprisoned by a mortal magician (Charles Dance) who was trying to capture Dream’s sister, Death, and ended up with the wrong god in his basement. (Dream and Death are both part of the Endless, a “family” of beings representing a fundamental aspect of humanity.) The show states its epic intentions early with a first episode that covers more than a century of time, as a sleeping sickness plagues the world while Dream remains in captivity. He eventually escapes but is immediately faced with a number of pressing concerns. First, three items of great magical power have been stolen from him, leaving Dream in a weakened state, and must be recovered. Second, his kingdom, The Dreaming, has suffered in his absence, its buildings decayed and most of its inhabitants fled. Third, one particularly nasty resident of The Dreaming called the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), a literal nightmare with teeth where his eyeballs should be, has escaped to the real world and gone on a murder spree. And, fourth, a young woman named Rose Walker (Kyo Ra) has been identified as a Dream Vortex, a human who has the power to enter the dreams of others and impose her will upon The Dreaming.
To fans of the comic, all of this should sound overly familiar, and indeed the season offers a fairly straight-forward adaptation of the first two graphic novels in The Sandman series: “Preludes & Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House.” There are some small liberties taken — for example, the Corinthian turns up earlier in the show than he does in the comic — but they mostly exist to tie together a number of stories that are a bit less connected in the comic and make them feel like a single, unified season of television. But the basic structure of the comic remains intact, with Dream’s quests taking him to locations as exotic as Hell and as terrifying as Florida. To non-fans, this may all sound like a bunch of gibberish, and it’s to the show’s credit that it is able to translate the comic book’s lyrical but sometimes labyrinthine story to the screen in a way that feels natural and welcoming. Though the effects are sometimes impressive (if often obviously digital), it ends up being not the world-building or fantastical visuals that are tasked with making the story work in a new medium, but rather the actors themselves. In the comics, Dream largely has the form of a human but is distinctly not one, his impossibly blackened eyes set with pupils that look like stars and the text of his speech always noted as otherworldly by being encased in jagged black dialogue bubbles. In the show, Sturridge’s Dream is obviously less abstract. He mostly looks like a normal dude, albeit one with impossibly good hair, and speaks with a normal human voice. But he carries himself with a sort of ethereal aloofness that cuts to the core of the character, and it’s not hard to buy him as a being that is not human but becomes more like one over the course of the story. If Sturridge doesn’t work then The Sandman doesn’t work, so thankfully the actor is able to bring Dream to vivid life in a way that is both compelling and recognizable to fans.
Other standouts of the large cast (some of whom only appear for an episode or two) include the perfectly cast Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death; David Thewlis as John Dee, an unwell man with dark ambitions who comes in possession of Dream’s magical ruby dreamstone; and Ferdinand Kingsley as Hob Gadling, a human who is granted immortality by Death and, over the decades, develops a unique friendship with Dream. Those three end up serving as the focal points of Episodes 5 and 6 — two hours that serve as the undisputed highpoints of the season. “Chapter 5: 24/7” adapts the disturbing and dramatic “24 Hours” issue of the comic-book series and traps a group of unsuspecting patrons in a diner with Dee, who decides then and there to start remaking the world by his own set of rules. Then “Chapter 6: The Sound of Her Wings” tackles two iconic issues at the same time: the one of the same title that features Dream accompanying Death as she performs her daily duties, as well as issue #13, “Men of Good Fortune,” which finds Dream meeting with Hob every 10 years to discover how immortality is treating him. Even if the rest of the series didn’t work, Netflix’s The Sandman would be worth it for these two hours, with the sixth episode in particular emotionally resonating at the impressive level the comic was often able to reach.
Other episodes vary a bit more in quality but never dip below a line where you would start to question the whole. One common complaint might be that the Rose Walker/Dream Vortex arc that closes out the season ends up being the show’s weakest, and it’s true those episodes suffer from some tonal inconsistencies as well as a few performances by actors who clearly aren’t as seasoned as, say, Dance or Thewlis. There are also some roles that don’t get enough screentime to be as effective as you might remember from the page. Appearances by two other members of the Endless, Desire and Despair, are so short as almost to be considered cameos. And while Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer seems like great casting in theory, the TV show version of the character never quite matches its devilishly charming comic-book counterpart.
There’s no doubt that a so-far-unannounced second season could help deepen and enrich some characters that don’t feel fully formed during the first go-round but still have large parts to play. And, based on the number of intriguing hooks Heinberg, Gaiman, and company plant during these 10 episodes that tease future developments — not to mention a humdinger of a final scene — it’s clear everyone involved is hoping to get a chance to further expand this world. It’s a good dream to have, and if this first season of The Sandman proves anything, it’s that even dreams that might seem impossible can sometimes come true.
Season 1 of The Sandman is available to watch on Netflix as of today. All 10 episodes were made available for review.