Years in the making, and painstakingly brought to life through what looks like very expensive computer imaging and intricate costuming and set design, “Sandman” has the potential to be very good, even great. It’s a fantasy epic in a time when fantasy epics are the genre du jour of prestige TV. It has been shepherded to the screen by Gaiman himself. It has talented actors – Gwendoline Christie, Stephen Fry, Jenna Coleman – among its large cast.
But in spite of everything “Sandman” has going for it, it is not, in fact, a very good or great show. The series (now streaming; ★½ out of four) is a middling series, made worse by wasted potential and Netflix’s dollars.
Excruciatingly slow and dull if not outright boring, “Sandman” is a perplexing failure. The stories that make up the comic-book epic are sewn together haphazardly and confusingly, never building to discernible arcs and not even broken down into interesting stand-alone episodes. The series is a pile of stories and moods randomly tossed on top of each other.
Whether that’s because the source material is simply too hard to adapt or because this adaptation got it wrong is unclear. What is clear is that fans of the comics are likely to be disappointed, and first-timers are likely to be confused and put off.
“Sandman” is about 20 or so different things and characters, but it can be boiled down to this: Dream (Tom Sturridge) is the eponymous Sandman, who controls the dreams of humanity. He’s among a family of anthropomorphic concepts, like Desire (Mason Alexander Park) and Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, whose episode is the best thing about the series by far). At the start, Dream (sometimes called Morpheus) is captured by a lucky human sorcerer (Charles Dance), imprisoned and silent in the waking world for over a century. His absence from the “Dreaming” realm causes chaos there and deaths and illness among the humans.
Once freed, Dream tries to repair his life by regaining his magical tools, which takes him to hell to visit Lucifer (Christie) and in search of a deranged human (David Thewlis).
If that sounds both confusing and a little boring, it is. The show fails to build characters worth caring about or any kind of narrative stakes. The problem is not that “Sandman” is a cerebral, talky kind of fantasy series. There are plenty of great works of science fiction and fantasy that rely more on character and dialogue than action set pieces. The problem is that all that discourse is empty and meaningless without substantive plot and ideas behind it. By the second half of the season, the acting and scripts turn juvenile and stilted, rendering the episodes almost unwatchable.
There’s a particular sadness to this adaptation, as characters from this story, based on stories woven into the world of DC Comics, have appeared elsewhere to great critical success. “Lucifer” was a delight on Fox and then Netflix, played by Tom Ellis. And “Constantine,” brought to life here by Jenna Coleman as the gender-swapped Joanna Constantine, was a short-lived (but well-loved) 2014-15 NBC series starring Matt Ryan. Ryan took the character to other DC shows on CW, including “Arrow” and “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” exploring some of his “Sandman” story with much more nuance.
I tried really hard to like this “Sandman” adaptation, more than I have with other shows that left me so disappointed by the first few episodes. I tried because I love fantasy and I love much of Gaiman’s other work, both on the page and on screen. I thought surely I just wasn’t getting something about the Netflix series. So I kept watching and waiting. But if anything, the deeper into the 10-episode season I got, the worse the show became.
So no, I’m not angry. The series is beautifully shot, and faithful to the Gothic art of the comics. I just wish it were better, and wonder whether it should have been made at all.