I’ll just come out and say it: The Sandman is thrilling, and engrossing, if you haven’t read the books, that is. The new Netflix show, based on Neil Gaiman’s immortal comics series (Gaiman is also the show’s executive producer), is full of wonder, but if you’ve had a long and intimate relationship with the books, it may be something of a disappointment.
For those of you who are new to the Sandman universe, it tells the story of Morpheus, the Lord Shaper, King of Dreams. Along with his six other siblings—Death, Desire, Destiny, Despair, Destruction and Delirium—Dream is one of the Endless. They aren’t gods, but far older entities that have existed for nearly as long as the universe has. They rule their own realms, and are incredibly powerful, but, as a family, they are not without their petty squabbles.
From the outset, the TV show does have a lot to live up to. Gaiman’s Sandman stories, serialized between 1988 and 1996, changed comics forever. But it also had an effect on wider popular culture, casting a long and transformative shadow over everything that came after, be it films, music, books or even TV shows. The Sandman series, though highly ambitious in scope, is no masterpiece, but in the first season, it gives glimpses of the show that it might yet become, and that is an exciting prospect.
Season 1 delivers a mostly faithful recreation of the first two Sandman books, Preludes And Nocturnes and The Doll’s House, right down to using the names of each book volume as episode names. This makes sense, since the episodic nature of the books lends itself very well to such treatment. Both in the books, and now in the TV series, this serves as our introduction to Gaiman’s Endless universe, and as a result, Season 1 has a fair amount of explaining to do. This is a difficult task, but the show mostly pulls it off, despite plenty of exposition-heavy Morpheus voice-overs in the first half of the season. If the show wants us to care for Morpheus and the rest of the characters, it does succeed to an extent. Even if I pretend that I haven’t read the books, by the end of the final episode of Season 1, I’m still curious to find out what happens next.
Tom Sturridge plays Morpheus with just the right combination of Gothic grandeur and emo navel-gazing, and leads a largely excellent cast who mostly stay true to the characters in the comics. Sturridge himself looks uncannily like a young Gaiman, which is all for the best, because Morpheus had been modelled to look like his creator in the first place. Stand-out performances include David Thewlis as John Dee, a creepy, delusional man who nearly destroys the world with Dream’s magical ruby. Boyd Holbrook is genuinely scary as the renegade nightmare The Corinthian, Vivienne Acheampong is suitably wry and arch as Dream’s long-suffering librarian Lucienne, and Mason Alexander Park’s eerily perfect cameo as the volatile and dangerous Desire is a scene-stealer.
However, the most inspired bit of casting has to be Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer Morningstar, the second-most powerful entity in the Sandman universe. She looms over Episode 4, A Hope In Hell, where Morpheus travels to Hell to retrieve his stolen helm. While the show’s Hell is nowhere near as visually spectacular as the one depicted in the books, Christie’s Lucifer is a menacing and unsettling presence. The Lucifer of the Sandman universe is a truly mighty creature, but also infinitely subtle and vulnerable, and Christie captures each of the nuances of what could have been a difficult role quite magnificently. Given how important Lucifer is to the rest of the Sandman saga, Christie’s performance is a relief.
While it would be impossible to capture the otherworldly weirdness of the comics, the show does deliver on spectacular, and often very surreal, scenes. Some of the depictions of the Dreaming is breathtaking, and the intensely horrific centre-piece of the season, Episode 5, called 24/7 ('24 Hours' in the comics), with its claustrophobic setting in a small-town diner, is almost David Lynchian in its detail, design and pervading flavour of homicidal insanity.
For fans of the comics, the prospect of the Netflix series has been a source of both barely-controlled excitement, and extreme trepidation, ever since the show was announced two years ago. As one of those fans, I have decidedly mixed feelings about the show. But if you haven’t read the books, you are in for nearly ten hours of highly enjoyable, and at times gripping, storytelling. The best stories of The Sandman are yet to come, and on the basis of Season 1, the show could yet become a classic.