Neither a dream nor a nightmare, the long-awaited on-screen version of the landmark comic book series is like a grueling walking tour of quirky fantasies, but built on the logic of dreams and led by a tedious guide.
Like a huge hourglass with two wobbly ends, “The Sandman” never finds its footing. Based on Neil Gaiman’s award-winning comics and adapted by the author himself (along with David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg), the Netflix series is tasked with introducing the streaming service’s massive (if slightly reduced) audience to its elaborate fantasy world. filled with mythical characters who rule and roam their kingdoms but live within an ever-expanding shared universe.
As if educating the masses on the secret meaning of our dream wasn’t complicated enough, the first season can’t settle for a simple structure. Certain stories feel episodic, but rarely take up a whole hour, while the ongoing plot, led by Dream aka Morpheus aka Master of Dreams aka The Sandman, is scattered and shifting. Dream himself (played by Tom Sturridge) is little more than a tour guide. His ambitions change as frequently as his established beliefs, seemingly driven more by a need to introduce Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie), Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Constantine (Jenna Coleman) than any inner need or desire. constant.
Desire is another character, by the way, played by Mason Alexander Park, but they’re less relevant to what’s going on here than as a tease for future seasons. Introducing a trailer after the first episode, as if he knows the opening hour offers little reason to keep watching, “The Sandman” seems equally hollow: all promise, little payoff. For die-hard fans, simply seeing Gaiman’s stoic drawings come to life may be reason enough to sit through 10 hours of a dream long cherished and finally realized. But anyone who hasn’t converted yet can tire of sifting through all this glittering sand for greater meaning, or, you know, any kind of genuine feeling.
Going straight to the exposition, “The Sandman” opens with Dream (first introduced as The King of Dreams) informing his audience of “mortals” that the world they “insist on calling the real world” is only half of his existence. . The place they visit when they sleep, called The Dreaming, plays an important role in their lives, and he is in charge of keeping it in order. Dream creates and controls dreams and nightmares. Some of these creations he keeps in his kingdom. Others venture out with their chosen employees. But as soon as they tell us the majority dreams can’t survive in the waking world, it’s clear that these are rules made to be broken, and don’t you know, one breaks soon.
The first episode primarily follows Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), a wealthy Englishman who believes he can capture Death and force her to bring his dead son back to life. But Roderick’s spell backfires and instead he binds Dream, who he demands to tell him how to ward off Death or revive her favorite child. When Dream refuses, through a century-long silent treatment, Roderick imprisons him, not-so-patiently waiting for the ever-patient demigod to give in to his demands. The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), an escaped nightmare living in the waking world, sees Dream’s imprisonment as an opportunity to reign free. (How he’s been killing people without repercussions so far is a question never asked, though the implication seems to be that it’s a nightmare that slips nicely into our dark and violent “reality”).
Calamity strikes in Dream’s absence, though like much of “The Sandman,” it’s unclear how much his time away matters, to the waking world and to Dream himself. Instead of using his long captivity to help the audience get to know him, side with him, understand his motivations, and become anxious about his subsequent quest, Dream remains a blank slate who never becomes a fully relatable protagonist, or even consistently understandable. . One minute he’s scolding a man granted immortal life for making money from the slave trade, the next he’s sentencing a nightmare to 1,000 years of darkness for choosing to turn compassionate. Around the middle of the season, Dream is having a kind of midlife crisis (or whatever people whose life is endless are called), depressed as if he’s already bored by the premise established in the last four hours. Even his opening monologue, where he says that his function is his purpose, is undermined later, as he has to learn the same lesson over and over again.
Courtesy of Netflix
After returning to his realm and undertaking whatever order needs to be restored, Dream mainly visits other members of the Endless: a family of immortal beings who rule over their realms. But every minor conflict she comes across is resolved using a kind of dream logic that never conveys the minute-by-minute stakes, let alone the big picture. She has a fight with the devil for… talking. A meticulously crafted villain named John Dee (David Thewlis) is taken down too quickly. So many battles need to be explained as they happen, and even then they only make sense conceptually – watching them unfold is a pointless exercise because there’s no marked consequence for every attack. When we’re not told what hurts an Endless being, it doesn’t matter what kind of CGI fireworks are exchanged or unheard-of spells are cast: you don’t know who’s winning or losing until the characters literally tell us who won and who lost. .
While useless as an action series, intriguing ideas come up from time to time. There is a lingering animosity between the creators and the created, or at least between Dream and the dreamers he oversees. He also feels abandoned by his family, who never look for him during his seclusion in an impenetrable glass sphere. There is a continual questioning and reaffirmation of his duty to serve humanity, in contrast to the rogue nightmares and other misguided entities who seek to harm them. But none of these observations turn into substantive thoughts, nor are they explored with enough conviction to require real investment in discovering a final stand.
The few highlights that exist in “The Sandman” come courtesy of a strong cast. Christie plays Lucifer with an arrogant conviction that is easy to admire. Howell-Baptiste puts a gracious spin on Death, while gently leading the fallen to their post-life positions. Thewlis is electric even when he’s just helping himself to a tub of ice cream, and his mid-episode interlude in a diner is the closest the show comes to properly acknowledging the necessity of dreams. But as bright as some spots shine, this first season is all over the map. He is so focused on making fun of this character or that kingdom that he forgets to create a dominant line, completely abandons any perceivable arc for his leadership, and resorts to muddled dream logic to keep things moving forward. “The Sandman” isn’t an arduous watch, but without a pounding heart and a focused mind, he’s easily forgotten. If you fall asleep at any time, chances are good that what your subconscious creates is just as memorable as this.
Season 1 of “The Sandman” premieres Friday, August 5 on Netflix.