It has taken 30 years for an adaptation of The Sandman (Netflix), Neil Gaiman’s celebrated comic-book series, to make it to the screen, and little wonder. It is a big, bold story of gods and demons, so deep and rich that the idea of cramming its wonders into 10 episodes seems borderline ludicrous. Yet this is the era of megabudget fantasy television, with the imminent arrival of a small-screen Lord of the Rings and the return of the Game of Thrones universe in House of the Dragon. With its debut season, The Sandman can stand proudly among them, albeit as their moody goth older brother.
The first couple of episodes exist firmly in the realm of fantasy. The notes I took when watching include “Patton Oswalt is crow?”. It’s that kind of show, and it immerses you in its world immediately, setting the Sandman off on his journey of discovery. It begins in 1916, when Lord Morpheus, or Dream, or the Sandman, or Lord Morpheus, Dream of the Endless, to give him his pedigree name (a sinewy Robert Smith type, played with breathy sulkiness by Tom Sturridge), is mistakenly captured by Charles Dance’s sinister – and Dance is very good at sinister – magus.
The magus wants to harness Death’s power to indulge in a spot of necromancy and revive his favorite son, who was killed in wartime. Instead, he ends up with Dream, and traps him naked in a glass sphere in his basement. For a while, the period setting feels a bit dark Downton Abbey, but it soon becomes clear that this is far too expansive to stick to one era or genre. Throughout the series, time flies, and slows, and we leap through different periods and cities and realms. It all feels like rather a lot, but it works well.
Partly, that is because the pace is meditative, not frantic. Once the scene-setting and world-building has been done, it has the confidence to take its time over the big stuff. I am sure plenty of viewers will love its more fantastical elements, from a battle of imaginations with Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) to a cute mythical creature called Gregory, but I found its finest moments in the more human, conversational, emotional strands. Jenna Coleman is strong as the messy, tough Johanna Constantine, a contraction of John and Johanna into one character (or two), whose nightmares are matched only by her exorcist duties.
The big cast is largely excellent, with an impressive ability to deliver lines that could have sounded overly literary or convoluted, or both, in ways that sound neither woolly nor unnatural. Vivienne Acheampong as Dream’s right-hand man Lucienne, Boyd Holbrook as the gruesome walking nightmare Corinthian, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as an empathic, big-hearted Death, are all fantastic. I spent some time mildly irritated at the idea that Joely Richardson, 57, could be cast as the mother of David Thewlis, 59, until I was reminded that in this world where teeth can replace eyeballs and getting sand in your eyes is far more troublesome than your typical trip to the beach, something as trivial as age is bound to be explained eventually. It is, and my outrage retreated.
Thewlis is brilliant as John Dee, naive and cruel and earnest and cynical, and he gets to lead the best episode of the lot. After an eerie car journey that plays out like a film of its own, Dee spends a day and night in a diner, experimenting on its staff and patrons by nudging them towards a policy of being honest. Each person’s feelings are teased to the surface, and it is horrible and mesmerizing and thrilling, with an uncanny, Twin Peaks-ish feel. This is surely a contender for best episode of the year, of any TV drama, and the point at which The Sandman really finds its feet.
Yet it is engrossing from the start. It is transportive, playful at times, and certainly grand. But above all, it’s dark. Bodies explode, limbs are severed, and demons crawl out of the mouths of professional footballers, fist-first. Nestled in among its more grotesque spectacles, though, is an emotional depth that elevates this far beyond the usual “let’s see what we can blow the CGI budget on” fantasy fodder. Given the source material, that’s no wonder. For fans, it may well turn out to have been worth the long wait, but for newcomers to the Sandman’s world, there is plenty to discover.