Nothing lets me know I’m in for a week of tedious emails like being tasked to write about a big-budget fantasy series for this fun TV column. So it is with a heavy heart that I must announce that I have watched The Sandman (available now on Netflix), the Netflix x Warner x DC crossover event of the summer. Do you feel it, sir? A disturbance in the email realm. It can’t be – no! Thousands of people who still have DVD collections are yelling at me in unison about lore!
Anyway, you can stop telling me which subreddits I need to subscribe to, or what arcane maps I need to get out of the library, because I actually like this one. I have a potted history with fantasy television: we had a lot of it a couple of years ago, almost all of it bad, because they ignored the two primary rules for fantasy that I have made up and never actually bothered to tell anybody. Those rules are: good fantasy should ask the question “What if this thing happened? That’d be weird, wouldn’t it?” then set out some uneasy rules to govern that weirdness. That’s it. With that canvas stretched taut, you can tell intriguing human stories over the top of it. What if every man on Earth died in an event? What if a supernatural cabal actually ran the government but started getting nosebleeds and died? What if a book could predict the future? You can paint a vivid world that tells interesting stories from many angles, or you can have a character who is basically on a road trip looking for some golden trinket that magically solves everything, and stretch that story out for exactly as long as the studio is willing to fund it. The former is a lot rarer than the latter, sadly, and culturally we are poorer for it. Anyway, I’m not here to kick Westworld season 4 again.
We should talk about The Sandman though, which is good – possibly very good, and edging on very, very good. It helps that there is rich source material to pull from – a 75-volume comic series, an 11-hour audio adaptation, all coming from Neil Gaiman, who knows how to tell a good goth story – and one that has wisely resisted adaptation thus far. We meet Dream, an endless being older than the gods, who gets captured for 100 years by Charles Dance. While that is happening, his sleepy realm crumbles, and starts to affect the waking world. Jenna Coleman is bouncing around doing something cockney. Stephen Fry does a really good Stephen Fry. There’s a raven that can talk. Boyd Holbrook is having an awful lot of fun playing the Corinthian, a devilish nightmare with teeth instead of eyes. GGwendoline Christie is obviously – perfectly! – Lucifer, the ruler of hell. Dream’s various siblings – Death, Desire, Despair – are whirring around him like little cogs. David Thewlis is, and there’s actually no other way of saying this, “really Thewlissing”.
But two key decisions make The Sandman stand out. As you can probably tell from above, the casting is spectacular. But there’s a great balance of those serious spit-when-they-talk actors alongside light-touch British comedians who temper some of the more po-faced storylines (Asim Chaudhry and Sanjeev Bhaskar, as Cain and Abel, are excellent against Dream’s Tom Sturridge who is very good – and doomed to inspire the sartorial decisions of an entire generation of goths – but playing the whole thing very seriously). This helps too because a lot of the scenes are, well, just a load of computer rendering talking to itself – you can’t really do “gates the height of heaven that lead to a realm of dreams” on a soundstage, can you? – and actors with that levity about them stop it from feeling too soulless. At no point do you think: I am watching a person who is talking to a tennis ball.
Second, while there is a fair amount of “I must go into hell and ask about my helm” trinket-getting, that’s not the only thing going on, and my two favorite episodes were standalone stories within a richer gods-and-monsters world . These two episodes – one set in a diner, one set in the same pub at hundred-year intervals – really show what you can do with one story and one character and one hour of ingenuity, and give the whole series more of an anthology feel than an endless story where someone does hand gestures a lot and magic comes out. I know you’ve been hurt before. I have all the emails to prove it. But here is a modern fantasy series that is worth investing your time in.