Thoughts on “The Sandman” Series
I’ve now watched all ten episodes of the first season of The Sandman on Netflix, and while I absolutely cannot be unbiased in my opinions about the series in any way, because a) Neil Gaiman is a friend of mine, b) Netflix is the service where I have been extensively involved in a series (Love Death + Robots), and have a movie currently in development (Old Man’s War), I do have some observations that I don’t think are out of line to note to you all. Please be aware that this post assumes you have some experience with/knowledge of The Sandman series, in both the comic book and the television iterations, and also, that you do not mind spoilers. If you don’t have the former, this piece may not make much sense, and if you do mind the latter, you should probably read no farther than this.
So noted, my thoughts, in no particular order.
1. Up front: I enjoyed the series quite a bit, and I strongly suspect I would have even if I did not know Neil personally. But as I do know Neil, I am also pleased that the version of The Sandman which has now been committed to television is one that he was both happy with and actively involved in. It’s an open not-so-secret that Sandman’s journey to screen has been filled with twists and turns and takes on the character and property that had almost nothing to do with the things Neil wrote into the series. The screen version of The Sandman deviates from the comics, sometimes significantly, but the emotional gestalt of the series is the same, and the variations have less to do with someone else new trying to “improve” the text by adding to/deviating from Neil’s work, and rather more to do the practical considerations of condensing down two full graphic novels worth of story (“Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House”) into one ten-episode series, and also, updating a three-decade-old property into 2022.
It mostly worked well for me, and the small quibbles I may have had with the adaptation were not nearly enough to affect my enjoyment. This is screen adaptation done well, with the involvement of a creator who has done enough film/TV work prior to this to be involved not just usefully but essentially.
2. The one thing I was particularly happy to see in the Netflix version of the story was the near-complete ejection of the DC Comics hooks in the “Preludes and Nocturnes” part of the series. I understand why they were there in the comics; The Sandman was a legacy character, and when the series started out, there had to be some obeisance to the DC machinery. Thus, the appearances by Martian Manhunter and other “mainstream” DC characters. But here in 2022, Neil’s Sandman is the Sandman. The story he tells in this arc does not suffer one whit from the removal of the traditional DC elements, and given the chaotic state of the DC cinematic and TV universe at the moment, there’s no benefit whatsoever trying to tie this series into any of that. If I had ever been given The Sandman to adapt (which to be clear was never offered, nor would I have taken it when Neil was right there all that time), punting the DC elements would have been job number one for me. So I was personally pleased to see my instinct here was a good one.
3. The best thing about the series is the cast, which is, down the last and least character, incredibly well-selected. Again, I have to think that this was substantially due to Neil being actively involved, although I have no detailed inside knowledge about this (you may assume for the purposes of this piece that I did not speak to Neil in any great detail about the production side of things, and have no special knowledge I’m trying to sneak in here).
The casting is impressive enough that I can say that Tom Sturridge as Dream is possibly the weakest bit of casting here, and he’s friggin’ perfect in his role — beautiful and haughty and a real hot mess who has the emotional intelligence of a sulky teen, but is who also, you know, trying. When I say Sturridge is the weakest bit of casting, it’s less about Sturridge — again, friggin’ perfect — than it is about the character of Dream himself, who is a cultural icon (so any actual human in the role would be deeply judged) and who in the context of the story is strongly defined by his relationships with and reactions to other characters. The role of Dream suffers, in other words, if other roles are not well-cast.
And again, the series nails these, and the way you know it’s nailed them is the fact you want more of almost all of them than you get on the screen. The most critical of these were the two of the other Endless that play a substantial role in this season, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Desire (Mason Alexander Park). Neither of them is onscreen long — Howell-Baptiste is there for one episode, while Park is in there less than ten minutes across across several episodes — but when they were there I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Howell-Baptiste is deeply warm and empathetic and draws out Sturridge’s best acting, and Park — well, Park has the devious fucktoi energy the role needs and then some. In the case of both of these performers, there was some performative outrage by shithead bigot “fans” when they were announced in the roles, because Howell-Baptiste is black and Park is non-binary. Well, these “fans” can go fuck themselves, not only for technical reasons (i.e., canonically the Endless are seen differently by everyone anyway, depending on their cultural and personal opinions on what an anthropomorphic representation of their respective concept should be, so their wholly insincere “argument” is invalid on its face) but also because these performers are just so damn good.
Indeed, there is quite a lot of casting in the TV series that is different from what it was in the comic book series, notably Johanna Constantine rather than John Constantine, but also the characters Lucienne, Rose and Jed Walker, and Lucifer among several others. I assume these were done for varying reasons and again all approved by Neil, who I quite reasonably consider the final word on these matters. And, once again, all the performances are grand. So, yeah. I’m more than fine with the changes to the characters in the original text; in the TV series, they work.
4. On the subject of changes to the original text, I was really curious how the series was going to handle the “cereal convention” section of the comics, and in particular the character of Fun Land, who is definitely a child murderer and probably also a pedophile (I can’t remember at the moment if the latter is spelled out in the comics). In the comics Fun Land’s fate is, uhhhhhh, rather more charitable than I personally would have had it be. The TV series deviates from that in a manner I personally found more satisfactory.
That said, that change was one of the few where the TV series pushed forward with violence/gore/unsettling revelations relative to the comic rather than pulled back. The TV Sandman felt largely PG-13ish with occasional sallies into soft-R territory (excepting the “24/7” episode, which has as much gore as you might like — although even that is scaled back from the comic), while the comics dipped rather more heavily into gore and body horror, which is easier (and cheaper!) to portray in drawings than in high-quality special effects. This isn’t a negative in my opinion, and in any event the TV version doesn’t have a problem going hard when it makes sense to go hard (again, “24/7”), but if you’re coming from the comics, it is noticeable.
5. Others have noted, and I agree, that season one of The Sandman is actually two smaller seasons: The five episodes that are “Preludes & Nocturnes,” the four that are “The Doll’s House,” and the mid-season breather that is essentially “That Bottle Episode With Death and Hob Gadling.” Of all of these, the least successful is the second half of the bottle episode, not because it’s not done well or is uninteresting, but because it’s a bit out of sync with Dream’s emotional arc in the TV series (the actual story represented happens later in the comics than it does in the TV series). It’s a bit of fan service, and Hob Gadling is important to the story later; the TV folks might have reasonably decided that Gadling’s tale would be difficult to insert later, so might as well do it now. These are the decisions you make when you have to make sense of a decade’s worth of comics.
Speaking of which, this is going to be an interesting needle for the TV series to thread: So much of comics version of The Sandman are stand-alone stories that involve Dream and the rest of The Endless to some extent, but aren’t about them so much as the universe the Endless inhabit and shape. In many ways The Sandman comics are an anthology series, and some of the most beloved stories there have little to do with Dream directly. How to incorporate those stories and still tell Dream’s overall tragic and triumphant narrative arc? Will they be incorporated at all? The ending of the first season suggests there will be some skipping ahead in the comic book narrative, which makes sense to me. I have no idea how this all will be handled, but I’m curious to find out.
6. If I have one criticism of The Sandman series that I would want to share here, it’s one that’s largely technical: I’m not 100% sure The Sandman benefits from what I call “The Netflix Look,” which is a certain grade of visual presentation shared in common with a lot of Netflix product, in no small part due to Netflix having specific imaging and production requirements. Netflix ostensibly does this to make sure everything they bring to the service has a certain level of production clarity. This is laudable most of the time, and also means there’s a certain baseline look that becomes recognizable the more you see it; all that clarity adds up. I think The Sandman could have benefitted from, well, a little more murkiness and grain and a more film-like presentation — an emphasis on atmosphere rather than sharpness.
This is entirely a personal aesthetic choice relating to these specific stories, mind you, and one I think other people can argue with. I will note that in general I think the look of screen entertainment shouldn’t be chained to technical legacies like, say, 24 frames per second, just because that’s the way it’s always been done. If you have a larger toolbox, use the whole damn toolbox. But if you do have a larger toolbox, try to use the best tool you have in there for the particular task at hand.
7. Would I recommend folks watch The Sandman? Yup! After three decades, it has a screen presentation worth watching, and one its creator is personally proud of. These two things don’t always align, but they do there, and that’s a nice thing. I’m looking forward to the next season, too. I can’t imagine the series won’t get another one at this point.