‘The Sandman’ review: Netflix’s Neil Gaiman show is a fleeting dream

Neither a dream nor a nightmare, the long-awaited screen version of the acclaimed comic book series feels like a weary walking tour of peculiar fantasies, but built on dream logic and led by a tedious guide.

Like a huge hourglass with two wobbly ends, “The Sandman” never finds its balance. The Netflix series, based on the award-winning comics by Neil Gaiman and adapted by the author himself (alongside David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg), is tasked with showcasing the massive (albeit slightly reduced) viewership of the streaming service to its elaborate fantasy world, filled with mythical characters who rule and roam their given realms while living in an ever-expanding shared universe.

As if edifying the masses about the secret meaning of our sleep wasn’t tricky enough, the first season can’t settle for a simple structure. Some stories feel episodic, but rarely fill an entire 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 often as his established beliefs, seemingly driven more by the need to introduce Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie), Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and Constantine (Jenna Coleman) than any consistent internal desire or desire.

Desire is another character, by the way, played by Mason Alexander Park, but they’re less relevant to what happens here than as a tease for future seasons. “The Sandman,” which airs a trailer after the first episode, as if knowing the initial hour offers little reason to keep watching, appears equally empty — all promises, few gains. For die-hard fans, just seeing Gaiman’s stoic drawings come to life may be reason enough to sit down for 10 hours of a long held dream finally realized. But anyone who hasn’t yet been converted can grow weary of sifting through all that glittering sand for greater meaning—or, you know, any kind of genuine feeling.

Jumping straight into the exposition, “The Sandman” begins with Dream (first presented as The King of Dreams) informing his audience of “mortals” that the world they “insist on calling the real world” is only half of their existence. The place they visit when they sleep, foolishly called The Dreaming, plays an equally important role in their lives, and is responsible for keeping it in order. Dream creates and controls dreams and nightmares. Some of these creations he keeps in his kingdom. Others venture with his chosen collaborators. But as soon as we are told more dreams cannot survive in the waking world, clearly these are rules made to be broken – and wouldn’t you know it is being broken soon.

The first episode mainly follows Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), a wealthy Englishman who believes he can capture Death and force them to bring his dead son back to life. But Roderick’s spell goes awry and instead lassos Dream, whom he asks to tell him how to ward off death or revive his favorite child. When Dream refuses – by way of 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, who sees Dream’s imprisonment as an opportunity for free reign, lends the dastardly father a helping hand. (How he’s killed people without repercussions so far is a question that’s never been asked, though the implication seems to be that he’s a nightmare that plays out just fine in our dark and violent “reality” ).

Calamity strikes in Dream’s absence, but like many of “The Sandman”, it’s unclear how much his time away matters – to the waking world and to Dream himself. Rather than using his long captivity to help audiences get to know him, rally around him, understand his motivations, and grow impatient for his ensuing quest, Dream remains a blank slate that never becomes a fully-fledged protagonist. relatable, if not always understandable. . One minute he’s berating a man who was granted immortal life for making money from the slave trade, the next he’s condemning a nightmare to 1,000 years of darkness for choosing to become compassionate. Around the middle of the season, Dream suffers from some kind of midlife crisis (or whatever it is called for people whose life is endless), moping around like he was already bored by the premise. established within the last four hours. Even his opening monologue, where he says his function is his purpose, is then undermined as he has to relearn the same lesson.

Tom Sturridge and Vivienne Acheampong in “The Sandman”

Courtesy of Netflix

After returning to his realm and intent on restoring order to be restored, Dream mainly visits other members of the Infinite: a family of immortal beings who rule their realms. But every minor conflict he comes up against is resolved using a sort of dreamlike logic that never conveys the minute-by-minute stakes, let alone the high stakes. He fights with the devil by… talking. A meticulously constructed villain by the name of John Dee (David Thewlis) is defeated far too quickly. So many battles need to be explained as they unfold, and even then they only make sense conceptually – watching them unfold is a pointless exercise because there is no marked consequence with each attack. When we aren’t told what hurts an endless being, no matter what kind of CGI fireworks are exchanged or unheard of spells cast – we don’t know who wins or loses until the characters literally tell us who won and who lost.

While useless as an action series, intriguing ideas surface 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 come to pick him up throughout his detention in an impenetrable glass sphere. There is a continuous questioning and reaffirmation of their duty to serve humanity, contrasted by the rebellious nightmares and other wayward entities that seek to harm them. But none of these observations turn into substantial reflections, nor are they explored with enough conviction to require real investment in finding a final position.

The few highlights that exist in “The Sandman” are the result of a strong cast. Christie plays Lucifer with an arrogant conviction that’s easy to admire. Howell-Baptiste puts a polite spin on death, as she gently ushers the dead into their afterlife positions. Thewlis is electric even when he’s just grabbing a tub of ice cream, and his half-episode restaurant interlude is as close as the show gets to properly acknowledging the necessity of dreams. But for as bright as a few dots shine, this first season is all over the map. It’s so focused on teasing that character or realm that it forgets to create a commanding guideline, completely abandons any discernible arc for its lead, and retreats to confusing dream logic to get things done. “The Sandman” is not an arduous watch, but in the absence of a beating heart and a focused mind, it is easily overlooked. If you fall asleep at any time, chances are whatever your subconscious creates will be just as memorable.

Rating: C-

Season 1 of “The Sandman” premieres Friday, August 5 on Netflix.

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