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‘The Sandman’ Review: Neil Gaiman’s Netflix Series Is All World-Building and Little Else

Neither dream nor nightmare, this long-awaited comic-book adaptation is a weary walking tour with a tiresome guide.

The Sandman Netflix Tom Sturridge as Dream, Patton Oswalt as Matthew the Raven (voice) in episode 103 of The Sandman. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2022

Tom Sturridge in “The Sandman”

Liam Daniel / Netflix

Like an enormous hourglass with two wobbly ends, “The Sandman” never finds its balance. The Netflix series, based on Neil Gaiman’s award-winning comic books and adapted by the author himself (alongside David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg), is tasked with introducing the streaming service’s massive (though slightly shrinking) audience to its elaborate fantasy world, filled with mythical characters who rule and roam their given realms yet live within a shared, ever-expanding universe.

As if edifying the masses about the secret significance of our slumber wasn’t tricky enough, the first season can’t settle on a simple structure. Certain stories feel episodic, yet 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 frequently as his established beliefs, seemingly steered more by the need to introduce Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie), Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and Constantine (Jenna Coleman) than any consistent internal wants or desires.

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 runs a teaser-trailer after the first episode as if it knows the initial hour offers little reason to keep watching, comes across similarly empty — all promise, little payoff. For die-hard fans, simply seeing Gaiman’s stoic drawings spring to life may be reason enough to sit through 10 hours of a dream long held and finally realized. (Though this is another production with too many scenes set in big, flat, open spaces, where CGI can be easily conjured for a bland kind of grandeur.) But anyone yet to be converted may grow tired of sifting through all this glimmering sand for greater meaning — or, you know, any sort of genuine feeling.

Getting right to the exposition, “The Sandman” starts with Dream (first introduced as the 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 sleeping, dully called The Dreaming, plays just as consequential a role in their lives, and he’s in charge of keeping it in order. Dream creates and controls dreams and nightmares. Some of these creations he keeps nearby. Others venture off with his chosen staffers. But as soon as we’re told most dreams can’t survive in the waking world, it’s clear these are rules made to be broken — and wouldn’t you know it, one soon breaks.

The first episode mainly follows Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), a wealthy English magician 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, who he demands tell him how to conjure Death or otherwise 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 semi-god to give in to his demands. Lending the dastardly father a helping hand is The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), an escaped nightmare living in the waking world who sees Dream’s imprisonment as an opportunity for free reign.

Calamity does strike in Dream’s absence, though like much of “The Sandman,” it’s unclear just how much his time away matters — to the waking world and to Dream himself. Rather than use his lengthy captivity to help the audience get to know him, to side with him, to understand his motivations and grow eager for his ensuing quest, Dream remains a blank slate who never becomes a fully relatable, or even consistently comprehensible, protagonist. One minute, he’s chiding a man granted immortal life for making money off the slave trade, the next he’s sentencing a nightmare to 1000 years of darkness for choosing to become compassionate. Around the middle of the season, Dream suffers a kind of mid-life crisis (or whatever it’s called for people whose life is endless), moping about as if he’s already bored by the premise established over the last four hours. Even his opening monologue, where he says his function is his purpose, is later undermined as he has to learn that same lesson over again.

The Sandman. (L to R) Tom Sturridge as Dream, Vivienne Acheampong as Lucienne in episode 103 of The Sandman. Cr. Courtesy Of Netflix © 2022

Tom Sturridge and Vivienne Acheampong in “The Sandman”

Courtesy of Netflix

After he returns to his kingdom and sets out to restore whatever order needs restoring, Dream mainly visits other members of the Endless: a family of immortal beings who rule their realms. But each minor conflict he runs into is resolved using a kind of dream logic that never conveys minute-by-minute stakes, let alone big picture ones. He has a fight with the devil by… talking. A meticulously built-up baddie by the name of John Dee (David Thewlis) is vanquished far too quickly. So many battles have to be explained as they’re happening, and even then they only make sense conceptually — watching them unfold is a pointless exercise because there’s no marked consequence to each attack. When we’re not informed to what hurts an Endless being, it doesn’t matter what kind of CGI fireworks are exchanged or unheard-of spells are cast — there’s no telling who’s winning or losing until the characters literally tell us who won and who lost.

While futile in its action sequences, intriguing ideas do surface from time to time. There’s 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 looking for him throughout his detention in an impenetrable glass sphere. There’s a continued questioning and reaffirming 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 develop into substantial thoughts, nor are they explored with enough conviction to require any real investment in discovering a final stance.

What few highlights exist in “The Sandman” come courtesy of strong casting. Christie plays Lucifer with a cocky conviction that’s easy to admire. Howell-Baptiste puts a polite spin on Death, as she kindly ushers the fallen into their post-life positions. Thewlis is electric even when he’s just spooning a tub of ice cream, and his half-episode interlude at a diner is as close as the show gets to properly acknowledging the necessity of dreams. (Watching him play mad morality scientist is a dark bit of fun.) But for as bright as a few dots shine, this first season is all over the map. It’s so focused on teasing this character or that realm that it forgets to craft a commanding through-line, fully abandons any discernible arc for its lead, and falls back on confounding dream logic to keep things moving forward. Had it shed thin storylines stretched across the season and fully embraced a more episodic approach — something more akin to reading a comic book — these issues wouldn’t loom so large. And “The Sandman” isn’t an arduous watch — it churns out curious cast members or creative concepts regularly enough to stir a kind of baffled fascination. But absent a beating heart and focused mind, it is easily forgotten. Should you fall asleep at any juncture, odds are good that whatever your subconscious creates is just as memorable as this.

Grade: C-

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

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