TV: The Sandman (Season 1)

Certain widely beloved properties and creators in the science fiction and fantasy genre have never entirely connected with me. Or, perhaps that’s putting it mildly; sometimes the disconnect is so strident, I feel like I’m missing a gene. Star Trek, Dr. Who, Harry Potter…influential content, so ubiquitous it feels almost like a personal failing not to respond to it. Based on limited evidence—disappointing film adaptations of Coraline and Stardust—I’ve developed a similar feeling about the work of Neil Gaiman, whose massively successful work had never lured me. So when Netflix’s The Sandman came on the scene, I really had no skin in the game, but it generated enough buzz that I was interested in challenging my stance. Well, for a moment there The Sandman—based on Gaiman’s mega-popular comic from the 1990s—almost penetrated my defenses, enlightening me to the appeal of another genre luminary who had thus far eluded my grasp. But by season’s end, I had tossed it rather forcefully onto the not-for-me pile.

The experience begins enticingly, building its mythology in an intriguing opener, “Sleep of the Just.” Lord Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), the king of the Dreaming realm, is captured by a pompous British aristocrat attempting to become immortal. In the process, the tools by which Morpheus rules his kingdom—a mask, a gem, and a pouch—are stolen. It’s an ambitious, well executed prologue that lays the groundwork for what is to follow: Morpheus’s eventual escape and return to the Dreaming. With the assistance of the Dreaming’s caretaker Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong) and a raven named Matthew (Patton Oswalt), he learns the impact of his extended absence on both the Dreaming and on the waking world of humans. Much has been broken, and the next four episodes essentially follow Morpheus’s quest to regain his implements of power, to repair the damage and restore his kingdom. This pits him against numerous foes hellbent on defying his agenda, the most interesting by far being John Dee (a mesmerizing David Thewlis), who has claimed Morpheus’s ruby and plans to use it to expose the world’s lies.

Much to my surprise, I was on board with The Sandman right through the first six episodes. The world is richly imagined, and the show quickly develops an eerie mystique. This aura is largely due to an impressive Sturridge, who manages to give an emo-anime cipher of a character an edgy, inscrutable presence. There is also plenty of first-rate support in the cast; Gwendoline Christie, Jenna Coleman, Charles Dance, Boyd Holbrook, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Joely Richardson, among others, populate the colorful landscape well. They contribute to a compelling momentum for the enterprise, which culminates in one absorbing but problematic episode, followed by a near-masterpiece. The former is “24/7,” a riveting bottle show that bets the farm on Thewlis’s scintillating villainy, and nearly hits the jackpot for its pains. In it, John Dee uses Morpheus’s jewel to unravel the lives of a captive audience at an all-night diner, using its illuminating power to shatter their every hope. It’s his world-shaking endgame in microcosm, and Thewlis is epically creepy in it, driving the story ruthlessly. Its ominous escalation also manages to invest us in a nicely crafted ensemble of one-off characters whose surface interactions conceal darker truths. Ultimately, the episode breaks its own spell, and oversells its cynical message, with an implosion of gory shock tactics, but there was enough magic in the experience to propel me anxiously into the next hour. “The Sound of Her Wings,” easily the crown jewel of the season, explores Morpheus’s sibling relationship with Death (Howell-Baptiste) through a long-ago bet. When Death grants immortality to Hob Gandling (Ferdinand Kingsley), Morpheus builds a fascinating relationship with the man by meeting with him through the ages at one-hundred-year intervals. It’s a beautifully contained story hinging on nicely choreographed dialogue between the two actors, and builds to an understated, perfect ending.

So: what happened? With “The Sound of Her Wings” serving as something of an interlude, the season winds down with a new run of episodes that comprise an entirely different, and profoundly disappointing, arc. This one involves the emergence of a “dream vortex” named Rose Walker (Kyo Ra) whose appearance evidently poses an existential threat to Morpheus—but also presents him with opportunity. He’s still seeking to track down his rogue operative, the Corinthian (Holbrook), who is on the loose, causing havoc; Rose may well be the key to solving that problem. Alas, the dream vortex storyline is poorly cast and listlessly executed. Holbrook does everything asked him, but his villain isn’t very interesting, especially compared to Thewlis. There’s no urgency to the plot mechanics, and the backdrop—a clandestine serial killer convention—doubles down on the gruesomeness that derailed “24/7.” Frankly, it just dull, and as strong characters key to the show’s early success vanish from the landscape, they aren’t adequately replaced. It’s a shocking decline in quality, and worse, calls further attention to the aspects of the earlier episodes that hadn’t initially bothered me, such as their reliance on cruelty and exploitation to generate plot conflict, and the hollowness of its showy creativity. A late-dropping bonus episode does nothing to mitigate the disillusionment; it certainly didn’t revive my interest.

From idle curiosity to enthusiasm, from irritation to boredom, and ultimately to disappointment—such was my experience with season one of The Sandman. It’s a shame, given the many bright spots, but its missteps, wild unevenness, and ultra-bleak worldview ultimately stripped away my goodwill.

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