What’s The Show? The Sandman
What’s It All About, JG? Well, other than the decades-long attempts to actually get the damned thing on screen at all, its mostly about Dream of the Endless, or Morpheus, who is captured and imprisoned by a cabal of occultists actually trying to snare Death. Trapped for a hundred years, the Dreaming – Morpheus’s realm – deteriorates, affecting the waking world. Eventually gaining his freedom, Morpheus attempts to rebuild his realm while trying to understand his place in a world that hasn’t known him for a century. We also get to meet various members of his Family, the Endless, and their shenanigans, and also the Corinthian, a dream that was made to be the ultimate nightmare and has escaped into the waking world.
Why Did You Give It A Go? Back in the dim and distant days of the 1990s, I did my undergraduate dissertation on The Sandman. This was back in the day when The Sandman was still an ongoing story, where graphic novels were very much looked down on as an art-form (the odd Maus or The Dark Knight Returns aside), and where the idea that it might actually have value was not a broadly-accepted standard in academia. I was very lucky to have a supportive tutor at the time who backed me 100% on choosing what was, back then, a fairly outré choice when most people were writing about Emily Dickinson or James Joyce. Suffice to say, no matter how this turned out I was going to watch it.
Is It Any Good? As mentioned, this has been a long time coming. Between various failed TV projects, movies and whatnot, Neil Gaimen’s seminal work has had quite the struggle to actually make it on to any kind of screen, never mind a big, glossy Netflix production. As Douglas Adams could no doubt have warned him, were he still around, the length of time it takes an adaptation to get to the screen versus whether that adaptation is actually any good do not bear much relationship to each other.
Which is to say, this is likely the best-case scenario for getting The Sandman on screen, but “best-case scenario” is absolutely not a synonym for it being Actually Good. It’s not bad, to be clear, and there aren’t any egregious mistakes or obvious disasters, but there’s also not a lot of visible passion or drive either. It seems that, in an attempt not to fuck it up, everything has been done so carefully that all of the animating life has rather been drawn out of it. All the beats are there, all the parts which largely consist of Preludes and Nocturnes and The Dolls House from the original run are present and correct, but they don’t really seem to have much reason to exist, other than the fact that they demonstrably do.
The Corinthian is the perfect example of this. The character is here, and yes he’s just as nasty and vicious as he was in the graphic novel. And yes, he turns up at the serial-killer convention at the end. And yes, all the participants are sent away to be haunted by their crimes once Morpheus tracks them down. But it’s all just… kinda there. We get a voiceover that explains what’s happened at the end of the convention and what those people will be cursed with, but it’s never anything other than a voiceover. That disconnecting, gets-under-your-skin feeling that made the original so compelling is entirely absent. It’s just An Event That Happens. The Corinthian’s eventual defeat is positively perfunctory. And this isn’t even leaning on unfair comparisons to the original graphic novel – you know the Doctor Who story, “Human Nature” / “The Family Of Blood”? At the end of that story, the characters of the titular Family suffer a smilier fate – cursed by the Doctor in various different ways. And it’s disconcerting and uncomfortable in a way that The Sandman version desperately needs to be, but isn’t. If Doctor Who can manage it, The Sandman really shouldn’t struggle – yet it does.
The casting is fairly up and down as well, which doesn’t help. As will very much be our theme this time out, Tom Sturridge is perfectly sufficient as Dream, but nothing more. He gets better as the show progresses but Dream is a very specific kind of character. “Still waters run deep” is somewhat underselling it but that’s really what the role requires. Someone who can inhabit a being as old as Humanity itself (maybe even older) yet still struggles with something as simple as forgiving a lover for a perceived slight. Someone who can reshape the minds of mortals with barely even a moment’s thought yet seems to lack critical insight into his own mind, never mind his Family’s. And Sturridge can’t quite pull that off. He’s fine at the surface-level stuff, he’s certainly gaunt enough to look the part, and he carries himself fine on a scene-by-scene basis. But there’s no depth there. There’s no great sense of what lies beneath. As a character he’s fine, as the anthropomorphic representation of all the dreams humanity has ever had it’s just not there.
At least Death lands, and that was one role they really couldn’t get wrong. Kirby Howell-Baptiste isn’t the pale, peachy-keen graphic novel version of the character, but her warmth and – most importantly – kindness absolutely radiate off the screen. She’s got great rapport with Sturridge as well, and “The Sound Of Her Wings”, the sixth episode, is effortlessly the best of the first season. That’s how the characters should be cast! She’s such an immediate presence having her there really makes you feel the loss elsewhere. As Matthew the Raven, Patton Oswald is fine – his voice is so familiar it’s a little distracting, but it helps greatly that Matthew himself is very well-realised on screen. Jemma Coleman, however, is drastically miscast as a gender-flipped Joanna Constantine. Lacking either the deep self-loathing of the graphic novel version or the sleazy charm of Matt Ryan’s Legends Of Tomorrow interpretation, Coleman adds nothing to the character – she’s just her usual perky self but occasionally says “fuck” sometimes, which isn’t good enough. And to be clear, the problem isn’t the gender-flipping, which is fine, it’s just that it’s not a role she is remotely right for.
There’s some nice cameos at least. The peerlessly-brilliant Meera Syall turns up unexpectedly as a vicar (and has more presence than Coleman in about two minutes of screen-time), and her Goodness Gracious Me co-star Sanjeev Bhaskar is inspired casting as Cain – a small role which he nevertheless nails. Charles Dance turns up in the first episode and does That Thing Charles Dance Does. Stephen Fry’s appearance in this was inevitable, but it’s fine, and Coleman’s Doctor Who colleagues Derek Jacobi and a cast-against-type Arthur Darvill pop up in an extra episode 11 (both are fantastic, and the “bonus” episode is better than almost anything in the “main” series).
And so it goes. There aren’t really any massive mistakes here, but it’s hard to say that there’s much in the way of triumphs. Which brings us back full circle – not good, really, but good enough. Make of that what you will.
How Many Of These Did You Watch? All of them. Come on, what did you expect?
Would You Recommend It? I wouldn’t not recommend it, but in the end, and for all the money, fuss, battles to get it to screen, mild controversies and whatnot, it’s just fairly hard to get excited about one way or the other. And that’s kind of the ultimate condemnation.
As a piece of television high-fantasy, it’s fine. The budget is clearly enough to realise Gaimen’s worlds and though there’s no mistaking the CGI for anything other than CGI it all works well, for the most part. The visit to Hell works better before Dream meets Lucifer – the “competition” again comes across as rather too literal – but we do get a nice turn from Gwendoline Christie as the selfsame Lucifer. She’s miles away from Tom Ellis’s character on the TV show Lucifer, despite both being derived from the same graphic-novel character, and one can’t help but feel Ellis’s presence might have enlivened proceedings here, despite Christie being great. But yes, things look fine on screen.
And there’s odd moments where the strangeness or emphasis of the graphic novel pokes through. “24/7” does a great job of delivering on the nightmare of what Dream’s ruby can do in the hands of a damaged mind, and is a remarkably successful slice of TV horror. It’s brutal, yes, but never self-indulgent. And the pitiable John, eventually shown mercy by Dream despite the chaos and death he causes, is a terrifically-realised character. All the visitors to the diner are vividly drawn in very little time, the performances are universally strong, and the emphasis on mercy lands. Alongside “The Sound Of Her Wings” it’s easily the best the main season can land.
And sometimes it’s the little things. When we meet three serial killers in a diner, looking forward to their conference and seeing the Corinthian, one of them is very clearly a paedophile. But rather than playing this up for sensationalism, this is left de-emphasised, which is the correct approach. We get a couple of off-handed lines which allow the audience to key in as to what’s off about him as a character. But rather than go for the more obvious approach of vocally condemning the character for lusting after what he hopes is an underage bus-boy, they instead allow his monstrosity to speak for itself and thus the show avoids becoming polemic. It’s not restraint The Sandman often has, but when it gets it right it really does make a big difference because it has a level of subtlety that really does help with that getting-under-your-skin feeling that the show so badly needs.
And yet, it’s not unentertaining. It absolutely isn’t. It could and should have been so much more, certainly. And that it isn’t is disappointing, especially for anyone invested in either the original graphic novels or just good genre TV. But even if you do come to this as simply a TV series and put the original to one side – and, despite how it might sound, I am very much in favour of this approach – there’s just something missing here. And that’s purpose. We’re supposed to buy into Morpheus softening as the season progresses but Sturridge doesn’t quite have enough of a handle on the character to pull it off, and he’s hampered by a script that doesn’t do much to invest in that development either. We get “The Sound Of Her Wings”, and that’s great, then it’s more or less back to business as usual. And beyond that? Well there’s a few nice stories, but nothing that really amounts to much of anything.
So, sure. It’s fine. But “fine” isn’t good enough. If this had been a bold swing that had resulted in an absolute disaster that honestly would have been better because at least it would have tried. Because, while entirely competent, this is just safe.
And that’s one thing The Sandman should never be.
Scores On The Doors? 6.5/10