Stories are like recurring dreams. They bubble up from our unconscious, often appearing the same — and yet, looking closer, you might find the details shift in every telling. If you like thinking about dreams, and stories, and you’re into general ponderous musings about goth stuff, then hoo boy is The Sandman the show for you.
As a long-gestating adaptation of a seminal comic book by Neil Gaiman, there’s a huge weight of expectation among readers and fans, but the good news is this atmospheric and engaging series is the stuff that dreams are made of. If you’ve never read the comics, you’re in for a treat as you come to the series unencumbered by your memories and vision of the original. If you have read the comics, well…. The original Sandman is such a multilayered and ambiguous story that every reader will have a unique relationship to it, and it’ll be fascinating to see how each viewer responds to the TV version.
Either way, Netflix’s 10-episode series is a delicious, dark, funny melding of myth and magic in the modern world, filled with seductive and destructive supernatural beings in a richly layered realm of fears and fantasies.
Streaming from Aug. 5, 2022, the series begins with a hubristic occultist trying to capture death. That isn’t a metaphor: In this tale, there’s an actual walking, talking figure who shuffles ill-fated humans off this mortal coil. This is a universe where abstract concepts — death, desire, despair — are embodied as stylishly dressed schemers squabbling with each other on assorted planes of reality. And it’s one of these who accidentally ends up locked in the occultist’s basement: a skinny, fiercely cheekboned chap named Morpheus. He’s the lord of dreams, and while he’s locked up for the best part of the 20th century his kingdom falls into ruins, unleashing dreams and nightmares alike into the human world.
The series intriguingly mixes the mundane with the mythical. The story unfolds in a world of cell phones and gas stations and spit-and-sawdust taverns — mixed with an eyeless serial killer, foul-mouthed occult trouble-shooters and an actual, literal Lucifer. From the dream realm to Hell itself, the show’s world(s) are so rich in detail that even the lesser characters sketch out a sense of an enigmatic larger universe, evoked by the merest scrap of dialogue or the briefest appearance.
Though it’s a fantastical story about a godlike mythical figure, reality-altering rubies and Death in a tank top, the core of The Sandman is the humanity of the people Morpheus encounters. From the premiere episode’s father and son battling over their prisoner’s fate, to a frankly mesmerizing midseason episode set entirely in an ill-fated diner, the show’s characters are sketched with heartwarming hopes and heartbreaking fears.
It’s frustrating that the show’s creators felt the need to open the series with a jarringly over-explanatory voiceover spelling out in eye-rolling detail what could’ve been teased and revealed through the show. I can’t help but feel the hand of a Netflix executive in that decision, but if it makes the series more accessible to new viewers, then I probably shouldn’t quibble. The cliffhanger for the first episode also suggests a traditional type of series — the fantasy version of a procedural — but that show never materializes. Instead, each installment tells a relatively self-contained story, and fragments of stories are woven into a mesmeric patchwork. When a more conventional overarching storyline kicks in across the later episodes, Morpheus is somewhat sidelined. But this more traditional story does give the show’s dreamlike structure a little forward momentum, and also serves as a facade to smuggle in increasingly and delightfully weird stuff.
The listlessly whispering Tom Sturridge has a tough task playing the lead role of Morpheus, who’s often a mere observer of events and is generally haughty, even cruel. But this fearsome figure is also enticingly vulnerable and has engaging moments of humanity (as in an early episode, when he asks when he could have commanded). He also has a very nice coat.
It’s also a tough job to play against such a weighty cast, all of whom sink their teeth into their multifaceted characters. There isn’t a weak link among the cast, though Jenna Coleman and Patton Oswalt feel a bit out of place. Silky-voiced Boyd Holbrook leads the way as Morpheus’ nightmarish creation The Corinthian, a seductive and sybaritic southern gent who can’t stop cutting people’s eyes out. Then there’s David Thewlis, who follows his terrifying turn in Fargo’s third season with yet another unnerving performance. Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie is an imperious Lucifer, while Vanesu Samunyai is the human heart of the later episodes. And among the supernatural stars attacking their roles with relish despite sadly limited screen time are Kirby Howell-Baptiste as an affable Death and Mason Alexander Park as purring, growling Desire.
In some ways, adapting The Sandman is an impossible task (or, I dunno, a Sisyphean labor, if we’re talking the language of Gaiman and his creations). Running from 1989 to 1996, the comic was created by Gaiman with artists Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg (and many others), and frequently told its story by playing with the form of the comics medium. Some of that stuff is simply impossible to re-create on television. So not everything will work in the TV version, at least not for some readers who have deep relationships with the source comics.
But stories are like recurring dreams. The same preoccupations, the same fears, the same desires may continually force the same dream into our helpless sleeping mind. Yet the details may change — and more importantly, we change every day, so the dream is never experienced the same way twice as we grow and learn. I confess it’s been years since I read the comics, and I’d experience them totally differently now than I did as a callow youth. So a new adaptation of a beloved work of art is also a different thing, and we’re different as we experience it.
What I’m saying is, try and let go of the comics a bit when you watch the TV show, OK?
For those new to The Sandman, your enjoyment will hinge on how you feel about airy philosophizing, Gaiman’s combination of whimsy with jet-black humor, or Stephen Fry. But, following on from the gleefully wicked American Gods and the cheerfully cosy Good Omens, this long-gestating adaptation of The Sandman feels like a fitting translation of Gaiman’s signature cocktail of unflinching humanity, atmospheric allusion, hilarious nastiness — and most of all an underlying sense of aching hope and joy. Perhaps nothing could capture the magic of the iconic comic, but set your love for the books aside, like a half-remembered dream. As a dark and captivating fantasy TV series, The Sandman is a dream come true.