I’m not mad that Netflix’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic “The Sandman” is a bad TV show, I’m just disappointed.
Years in the making, and meticulously brought to life through what looks like expensive computer imagery and intricate set and costume design, “Sandman” has the potential to be very good, even great. It’s a fantasy epic at a time when fantasy epics are the genre du jour of prestige television. It has been driven to the screen by Gaiman himself. It has talented actors, Gwendoline Christie, Stephen Fry, Jenna Coleman among its great cast.
But for all that “Sandman” has going for it, it’s not, in fact, a very good or great show. The series (now streaming; ★½ out of four) is a middling series, made worse by wasted potential and Netflix dollars.
Excruciatingly slow and boring, “Sandman” is a baffling flop. The stories that make up the comic book epic are haphazardly and confusingly strung together, never built into discernible arcs and not even broken up into interesting stand-alone episodes. The series is a bunch of stories and moods randomly thrown on top of each other.
It’s unclear if that’s because the source material is simply too difficult to adapt or because this adaptation got it wrong. What is clear is that fans of the comics are likely to be disappointed, and newcomers are likely to be confused and bummed out.
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“Sandman” is about 20 different things and characters, but it can be boiled down to this: Dream (Tom Sturridge) is the eponymous Sandman, who controls the dreams of mankind. He is part of a family of anthropomorphic concepts, like Desire (Mason Alexander Park) and Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, whose episode is by far the best of the series). At first, Dream (sometimes called Morpheus) is captured by a lucky human sorcerer (Charles Dance), imprisoned silently in the waking world for over a century. His absence from the “Dreaming” realm causes chaos there and death and disease among the humans.
Once freed, Dream tries to repair his life by retrieving his magical tools, which leads him to Hell to visit Lucifer (Christie) and in search of a deranged human (David Thewlis).
If that sounds confusing and a bit boring, it is. The show fails to build characters worth worrying about or any sort of narrative stake. The problem isn’t that “Sandman” is some kind of cerebral, chatty fantasy series. There are plenty of great sci-fi and fantasy works that rely more on characters and dialogue than action scenes. The problem is that all that speech is empty and meaningless without a plot and substantive ideas behind it. In the second half of the season, the acting and scripts become juvenile and forced, making the episodes nearly unwatchable.
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There is a particular sadness in this adaptation, as the characters in this story, based on interwoven stories in the world of DC Comics, have appeared elsewhere to critical acclaim. “Lucifer” was a delight on Fox and then on Netflix, played by Tom Ellis. And “Constantine,” played here by Jenna Coleman as the gender-swapped Joanna Constantine, was a short-lived (but much-loved) NBC series from 2014-15 starring Matt Ryan. Ryan brought the character to other DC shows on the CW, including “Arrow” and “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” exploring some of his “Sandman” history with much more nuance.
I tried very hard to like this adaptation of “Sandman” more than other shows that let me down so much with the first few episodes. I tried it because I love fantasy and I love so much of Gaiman’s work, both on the page and on the screen. I thought that he was surely not understanding something about the Netflix series. So I kept watching and waiting. But if anything, the further into the 10-episode season I got, the worse the show became.
So no, I’m not mad. The series is beautifully shot and true to the gothic art of the comics. I just wish it was better, and wonder if it should have been done.
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