August 13, 2022

Review: The Sandman, Season 1--"Stories are like spiritual currency"


Somehow I missed the entire original run of Neil Gaiman's iconic series, but on the announcement of Netflix's adaptation I bought the first two graphic novels and made my way through them. On finishing, my first thought was: "I hope they can pull this off, but I don't know how in hell they're going to." 

Reader, I must now eat those words (with a side helping of snarky Patton Oswalt), as not only has the creative team behind this show pulled it off, they have done so with style.

I attribute this to a) Neil Gaiman's active involvement (he's listed as executive producer and was apparently pretty hands-on throughout the entire process); and b) the showrunners' evident respect for the source material. They fundamentally understand that at its heart this is a story about stories. While episodes 7-10 are the closest thing the series has to a conventional plot, they do take time for side tours while utilizing the famous one-off issues "24 Hours," "The Sound of Her Wings" and "Men of Good Fortune" (from the second volume, The Doll's House). The latter two are combined into a single episode, Episode 6, which is a highlight. Although I confess to great fondness for episode 4, "A Hope in Hell"--I do wish David Bowie had lived to see this made, as I'm fairly sure they would have tried to get him to play Lucifer Morningstar, but Gwendoline Christie's erudite, understated menace is creepy as heck. 

The first five episodes, covering most of Vol. 1, Preludes and Nocturnes, introduce Dream of the Endless and the Dreaming, and show us the aftermath of Dream's inadvertent, ill-timed, century-long imprisonment at the hand of human sorcerers actually searching for his sister Death. During his period of capture, his tools (a bag of sand, a mask, and a ruby pendant) were taken from him. He has to get them back to begin to repair the damage done to his realm in his absence. Episode 6 serves as a pause and a breather, and the last four episodes cover The Doll's House, its serial cereal convention, and the "dream vortex," Rose Walker, that threatens to destroy not only the Dreaming but the human world as well. 

This show has a lot of strengths, but its greatest is its cast. The actors are spot-on for their characters and turn in incredible performances. Tom Sturridge is picture-perfect as Dream/Morpheus, with a deep, gravelly voice well suited for Dream's portentous (and pretentious) pronouncements. He portrays the character's fleeting touches of vulnerability and occasional outright dickishness with ease. Gwendoline Christie towers over Dream during their confrontation in Hell (and apparently her wings were practical, not CGI) and Jenna Coleman shines as Johanna, a gender-swapped John Constantine (due to rights issues, as the latter character is tied up by J.J. Abrams). Kirby Howell-Baptiste is kind, compassionate and empathetic as Death, just the person you want to take your hand and lead you into the final dark. Mason Alexander Park has just a few scenes as the flamboyant, charismatic and manipulative Desire but still makes quite the impression, and I hope we see more of them in the second season. Vivienne Acheampong is grounded and down-to-earth as Dream's librarian Lucienne,, and shows well her exasperation at her boss's coming back after a century's absence and not recognizing all she did to keep things going while he was gone. David Thewlis is understated and chilling as John Dee, the insane asylum escapee who is corrupted by holding Dream's ruby pendant, and Boyd Holbrook damn near steals the show out from under everyone as the Corinthian, especially in episode 9, "The Collectors." 

Netflix evidently backed a very large truck of money up to the VFX house and unloaded it, as for the most part the CGI looks great. (There were a few dodgy shots of Dream's raven at the beginning.) Probably the best-looking, and most effects-heavy, episodes were Dream's journey to Hell and the finale, showing him in a corner of his realm creating more dreams and nightmares (and finally trusting Lucienne to make decisions for him in his absence). 

We haven't heard anything about a second season as yet, but I can't imagine Netflix not renewing this. Fans have been waiting for this adaptation for decades. As far as I can see, it's an unabashed triumph, and well worth your time. 

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