It’s been almost 30 years since The DC comic The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg debuted, and it’s taken all of this time to adapt it for film or TV. It took Gaiman himself to do it; he created the series along with David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg. It’s a sprawling series, to say the least, taking place over decades and seemingly able to bounce back and forth in time with ease.
THE SANDMAN: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: “We begin in the waking world, which humanity insists on calling ‘the real world,” says a voice as we see a late 1910s-vintage car drive down a tree-lined road.
The Gist: Dream (Tom Sturridge) — full title is The King of Dreams — controls the dreams of everyone on earth, and has always wished that humans thought that what worlds they entered when they slept was considered equally with their waking hours. His assistant Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong) tells him that nightmares seem to stick with humans more than dreams.
In Berlin around 1916, occultist Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) is paid a visit by John Hathaway (Bill Paterson). Burgess promises that, with the spell book Hathaway brought, he can cast a spell to capture the Angel of Death and force him to bring back both of their sons. His son Randall, whom he calls “my greatest joy” right in front of his youngest son Alex (Benjamin Ainsworth), died in battle and Roderick thinks capturing Death can get him back.
Dream is on earth, chasing down The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), a creation of his who is using nightmares to kill people. Dream is about to eliminate him, when an incantation makes him disappear instead. Burgess’ spell worked, sort of: Instead of capturing the Angel of Death, Dream is the one who’s now in captivity, which is where he stays for 100 years, refusing to acquiesce to Burgess’ greedy requests. In the meantime, people all over the world are being killed or rendered comatose by their nightmares, thanks to the Corinthian’s ability to do his work without interference.
A decade later, an adult Alex (Laurie Kynaston) has had enough of kowtowing to his cruel father, who orders his young girlfriend Ethel Cripps (Niamh Walsh) to have an abortion after he gets her pregnant. A number of incidents leads to an unfortunate accident, but that doesn’t prompt Alex to release Dream, but when he’s an old man, and not only is the circle that keeps Dream captured “accidentally” broken, we also see what happens when he invades people’s dreams. He’s finally out, but when he goes back to his kingdom, it’s been irreparably changed.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Neil Gaiman may cringe at the comparison, but The Sandman has a bunch of similarities to Lucifer, although it takes itself way more seriously than the Fox/Netflix hit. Gaiman would be happy with a comparison to Good Omenswhich is based on his and Terry Pratchett’s book.
Our Take: We do have some issues with the first episode of The Sandman, one having to do with how it’s shot and another having to do with the timeline. First, how it’s shot: Most of the scenes were so dark that we could barely figure out exactly what was going on. We watched the first episode on two different devices, figuring our TV’s HDR was making the blacks too black. But on our laptop, those same scenes were hard to follow because they were shot so dark. It’s entirely possible to give a show a dark, brooding feel while still giving viewers and even shot of being able to see what’s going on; because the first episode didn’t accomplish that, it made following the story all the more difficult.
The timeline made us scratch our heads, too. If Alex is a teenager in 1916 and in his 20s ten years later, how in the heck old was he when he saw Dream for the last time? When Dream said that he was in captivity for 100 years, that made us think that the year he escaped was at least 2016, 90 years after we last saw him. That would make Alex well over 110 years old!
It’s obvious that we haven’t even scratched the surface of how Dream is going to go about trying to recapture his kingdom and track down the Corinthian. Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) has yet to appear, and we will be getting a view of Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) herself. There are other aspects to Dream’s story that have yet to be explored. So, while the first episode is a bit scattered, it does set up the origin story, such as it is, of Dream’s quest to wrest back his kingdom.
Will The Sandman appeal to people who aren’t necessarily fans of Gaiman or the comic? We’re not sure. Like we said, it’s a sprawling narrative with lots of characters moving in and out of different timelines. It’s one that takes energy and concentration, and we’re unsure that there are enough entries into the story for people coming to it fresh.
Sex and Skin: None in the first episode.
Parting Shot: “I made this realm once, Lucienne,” says Dream. “I will make it again.”
Sleeper Star: Patton Oswalt voices Matthew the Raven, who isn’t in the first episode. But given how ravens are important spies for Dream and others in the afterlife, we’re looking forward to seeing what his role will be.
Now Pilot-y Line: Ethel introduces herself to Alex by defending him against a crowd who wants in on one of his father’s bacchanalias. “He’s the Magus’ son. You fucking twat,” she says. Wow, that escalated quickly.
Our Call: STREAM IT. While not our cup of tea, we definitely see how appealing The Sandman would be to fans of Gaiman and his work. We’re just not sure it’s particularly accessible to those of us who are new to the story.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.comFast Company and elsewhere.