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The Sandman (Series) – Review

Dream Dangerously

The Sandman began life as a comic book spinoff by late 80’s DC Comics wunderkind Neil Gaiman, the very same Neil Gaiman who would go on to create a litany of instantly recognizable properties that have recently been adapted to TV (Lucifer), streaming series (American Gods; Good Omens) and film (Stardust; Coraline). Gaiman’s novels routinely land on the best-sellers lists and his work has garnered Hugo, Bram Stoker, National Book, Newbery, Carnegie and Nebula Awards. All of which is to point out that the man knows his way around a story, and has steeped his work in our shared human mythology. On The Sandman, Gaiman is credited alongside showrunners David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg as one of the head writers and Executive Producers, which means his fingerprints are all over this project, unlike some recent adaptations that tended to veer from the source material in potentially detrimental ways (i.e. the 2 nd and 3 rd seasons of American Gods). What that means, in terms of the quality and scope of The Sandman, is that it offers a much more cohesive story, and a spiritually
faithful adaptation of the most expansive of Gaiman’s works.

The Sandman’s comic book roots comprise 85 issues of three different comic book series that appeared on shelves from 1989 all the way up to 2015, not to mention all of the associated one-offs, spinoffs and guest appearances in other esoteric DC titles like Hellblazer (aka John Constantine) and Swamp Thing. This rich, thirty-year history offers up a deep well of stories, characters and settings to draw from.

The basic premise is that, among the unseen gods and goddesses of human history, exists a family of anthropomorphic manifestations of base human emotions and concepts. They are known as The Endless: Death, Destiny, Destruction, Desire, Delirium, Despair and Dream. The tale of The Sandman, obviously, centers on Dream, also known as Morpheus, Oneiros, Prince of Dreams, and Lord of the Dreaming. Dream leaves his kingdom, where we all go to dream when we sleep, in order to chase down a rogue nightmare known as The Corinthian, a toothy-eyed psychopath who has escaped to the waking world and become a prolific serial killer in the early 20 th century. About to complete this mission, Dream is sucked into the clutches of a wealthy occultist named Roderick Burgess, who is trying to capture Dream’s older sister, Death, in order to demand the return of Burgess’ dead son, recently killed at Gallipoli in WW1. What follows in that first episode is close to 100 years of captivity before Dream is able to escape and return to his Kingdom, which is now crumbling and beset with problems.

The rest of the season follows Dream as he attempts to rebuild the dream world, navigate the modern waking world, avoid the machinations of nefarious characters like his devious sibling Desire, the deadly Corinthian, and Lucifer herself, all the while coming to terms with his own faults and the limits
and responsibilities of his place as the Prince of Dreams.

The show starts off very strong with that first episode but does cram in a lot of exposition to set up the worlds we travel between. It’s a necessary evil when dealing with such an expansive set of concepts and characters. Some might say that the pace drags in a few spots throughout the season, but to me, it follows the feel of the source material. Some stories are action-packed, some are thick with myth and magic, and some are more delicate studies of emotion and motivation, something I would think modern audiences would be getting used to after series like Atlanta, The Boys, Better Call Saul and even Supernatural, that play fast and loose with the format and intersperse quiet, seemingly unimportant standalone episodes or subplots that come together with the final arcs to deepen and flesh out the series as a whole. In the end, Gaiman’s original Sandman series is very faithfully adapted, more faithfully than almost any other Gaiman property, despite the groans and misery you will no doubt hear from the cis-white-pseudo fanboy peanut gallery, who will no doubt be perturbed and triggered by gender and race changes. John Constantine, for instance, previously played on screen by Keanu Reeves and Matt Ryan, is gender-swapped here for an extremely effective and likable Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine. Lucifer, traditionally a man in the comic and the TV show (and most unimaginative Christian’s minds) is here brought to life by a fabulous and imposing Gwendoline Christie. Death is updated from a skinny white goth girl in 1989’s original to the immensely charismatic Kirby Howell-Baptiste, who happens to gasp not be a skinny white goth girl. Likewise, the central characters of Rose Walker, her brother Jed, and her great-grandmother Unity Kinkaid, have all been switched from the pale persuasion to a darker complexion, neither hue being in any way central to their characters in either print or visual format. I hold out hope that most viewers won’t care, and will keep in mind that these are
changes put in place by the creator of the work, who has a long history of being progressive in his words and actions, and not – as some would whine and complain – “empty wokeness”. It’s progress in the perception of the world around us, not some war against the long-privileged. As to the rest of the cast,
standouts include the always reliable Charles Dance as Burgess, David Thewlis, an unexpected but always welcome appearance by Stephen Fry, Boyd Holbrook as an incredibly charming, yet terrifying Corinthian, Mason Alexander Park as the ethereally androgynous Desire, and Tom Sturridge in the title
role, who not only looks the part of a modern version of the Robert Smith (and Gaiman) inspired Dream Lord, but is equally adept at portraying mystically powerful and imposing, and quietly observant.

With that out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks. Gaiman is well renowned for his mastery of storytelling, and this first season of The Sandman is another win. The story itself is not only an exceptional reworking of themes and traditions with a deep mythological history in western civilization, but weaves in elements of sci-fi, theology and psychology, creating a tapestry of multi-layered entertainment that raises serious questions about morality, responsibility and self-sacrifice. It uses standard tropes and story beats to carry us along through a mysterious underworld of imagination, while peppering it with familiar characters from our shared literary history and giving them new life through fanciful explanations of their origins and purposes. As with any Gaiman story, there are lots of little literary easter eggs, plenty of references to side characters and plots in the comics, and a wealth of background imagery and texture to satisfy the fans of the author and his work. The visuals are astounding, the VFX are absolutely breathtaking, and the cinematography, lighting, etc are all top-notch.

On a whole, I think this deserves to be another Stranger Things level hit for Netflix, whether or not enough people will get into it without being familiar with the source material is another story, but as a standalone offering, it is a well-made, well-acted, well-directed piece of sci-fi fantasy TV that should definitely be given a chance. Here’s hoping for enough seasons to finish out the story.

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