IIt took 30 years for an adaptation of The Sandman (Netflix), the famous comic book series by Neil Gaiman, to hit the screen, and no wonder. It’s a big, bold tale of gods and demons, so deep and rich that the idea of cramming its wonders into 10 episodes seems borderline ridiculous. Yet we are in the age of mega-budget fantasy television, with the imminent arrival of a Lord of the Rings on the small screen and the return of the Game of Thrones universe in House of the Dragon. With its first season, The Sandman can stand proudly among them, albeit as a moody gothic older brother.
The first two episodes exist firmly in the realm of fantasy. Notes I took while watching include “Patton Oswalt is a crow?”. It’s that kind of show, and it immediately immerses you in its world, setting the Sandman off on its journey of discovery. It begins in 1916, when Lord Morpheus, or Dream, or the Sandman, or Lord Morpheus, Dream of the Endless, to give him his pedigree name (a wiry Robert Smith type, played with breathless sulk by Tom Sturridge), is captured by mistake. by Charles Dance sinister – and the dance is very good in sinister – mage.
The mage wants to harness the power of Death to indulge in necromancy and revive his favorite son, who was killed in wartime. Instead, he ends up with Dream and the naked trap in a glass sphere in his basement. For a time, the period setting feels a little dark in Downton Abbey, but it soon becomes clear that it’s far too broad to stick to any one era or genre. Throughout the series, time flies and slows, and we jump through different time periods, cities, and kingdoms. This all seems rather a lot, but it works well.
That’s partly because the beat is meditative, not frenetic. With the staging and world building done, he has the confidence to take his time on the big stuff. I’m sure a lot of viewers will love its more fantastical elements, from an imaginative battle with Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) to a cute mythical creature called Gregory, but I found its best moments in the more human, conversational strands and emotional. Jenna Coleman is strong like the tough and messy Johanna Constantine, a contraction of John and Johanna into a character (or two), whose nightmares are matched only by her duties as an exorcist.
The large cast is largely excellent, with an impressive ability to deliver lines that might have felt overly literary or convoluted, or both, in a way that feels neither woolly nor unnatural. Vivienne Acheampong as Dream’s right-hand man, Lucienne, Boyd Holbrook as the gruesome walking nightmare Corinthian, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as the empathetic, big-hearted dead man are all fantastic. I spent some time mildly irritated that Joely Richardson, 57, could be cast as the mother of David Thewlis, 59, until I was reminded that in this world where teeth can replacing the eyeballs and having sand in the eyes is much more troublesome. than your typical trip to the beach, something as trivial as age will eventually explain itself. It is, and my indignation receded.
Thewlis is brilliant as John Dee, naive and cruel and serious and cynical, and he happens to direct the best episode of the lot. After a bizarre road trip that plays out like a movie in its own right, Dee spends a day and night in a restaurant, testing her staff and customers by pushing them toward a policy of honesty. Each person’s feelings are teased to the surface, and it’s gruesome, fascinating, and thrilling, with an eerie, Twin Peaks-ish feel. It’s surely a contender for best episode of the year, of any TV drama, and the moment The Sandman really finds his feet.
Yet it is captivating from the start. It’s transporting, playful at times and certainly grandiose. But above all, it is dark. Bodies explode, limbs are severed and demons come out of the mouths of professional footballers, fist first. Nestled among its more grotesque spectacles, however, is an emotional depth that elevates this far beyond the usual “let’s see what we can blow the CGI budget” on fantasy fodder. Given the source material, it’s no wonder. For fans, it might have been worth the wait, but for those new to the world of Sandman, there’s a lot to discover.