REVIEW: THE SANDMAN
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Netflix's The Sandman
– Feb. 25, 2023
first posted to Adversaria Aug. 10, 2022
So, on Netflix, The Sandman, a ten episode series based on the comic series written by Neil Gaiman, now published in twelve volumes. I have read the first of them, which may not be the best sampling as I have seen more than once the judgment that the first volume is just a prelude that is not as good as the following eleven. I have volume 2, but have not read it yet.
The story is about Morpheus, or Dream, ruler of the realm of dreams, one of the Endless; in the series played by Tom Sturridge, who does a commendable job playing a character that must somehow appear ever otherworldly, ever of the realm of Dreams, and ever of the tenor of the character in the books. I will admit there are moments where I could not help but think, "You nailed that line." Though, there are also moments of "Who picked that camera angle?" caused by a sudden banality. The first volume of the comic covers his eighty-year-long imprisonment (over a century in the tv series) by a magus and his son, then his escape, and finally the recovery of his three items of power.
The first five-and-a-half episodes of the series follows volume 1, greatly re-written, as would need be. Certain plot lines are wholly changed, and more than one major character added — particularly one that serves as an enemy of Dream. His presence, though, seems rather superfluous. I am sure his being written in was to give some connection between that five-and-a-half episode prelude and what follows. Indeed, as is warned about the comics, after that prelude it is as though the story resets. What came before can wholly be ignored. The show offers some star power: Jenna Coleman plays Joanna Constantine, a female edition of the comic character, and holds her episode well (if an episode that might show a little of the problems of translation from comic to screen). Moreso, David Thewlis shows up as a character given much more screen time than book time. He carries the episode centered on him, but would you expect otherwise?
In total, those first five episodes are fun. They showed some minor flaws. They add a talking raven, and, generally, a talking animal signals writing that is going to fall back on the trite rather than push forward to the creative. But for the most, the flaws are nothing that cannot be forgiven. The episodes did suffer from that they are based on a comic, where a lot can happen in but a few pages, they being generally not much on narrative flushing-out. But the show mostly solved the conundrums — by cutting out a lot, even more in that stuff is added — and presented a pleasurable series of five episodes. Nothing, however, that I would say attains excellence, which is a disappointment but not a condemnation.
Episode 6 closes the story arc with a conversation between Dream and Death taken straight from the close of book 1 of the comic. It then turns to a somewhat non-sequitur standalone story that is in the middle of book 2. The end of the episode drags: it is a sequence of scenes that each need long minutes of set up for only a couple lines of dialogue, all for a pay-off that frames well the newly freed, newly re-empowered, newly re-invigorated Dream, but which feels too long in the coming. It might have worked better taken away from the comic, wholly flushed out, and made an episode in itself. But, that is just criticism prompted by that you cannot help the question of why there was that non-sequitur close to an episode that ended, for all intents and purpose, when Death and Dream parted ways.
Then comes episode 7, and the beginning of a new story arc, involving another of the Endless, Desire, played by Mason Alexander Park, but centered on a human "dream vortex," Rose Walker, played by newcomer Vanesu Samunyai. Indeed, Dream is present only in the last scene of the episode. Which speaks to a shift in the series.
For with episode 7 the dialog drops — plummets — in grace and intelligence, the directing gets bad, and the acting gets worse. The show becomes a medium budget amateur hour, something on the level you would find on The CW, next to Naomi (which you probably have not seen, so I will tell you it is laugh out loud bad). The woman who plays Rose, the vortex, is, to be blunt, a terrible actor, and those around her do not offer much better. Desire becomes an overacted clown the moment he is on screen, greatly an error of directing, made all the more exaggerated in that his companion in those scenes, his twin sister, Despair, seems to have suffered the dilemma of that the intended actor became ill the night before the sequence was to be filmed and the director but grabbed the nearest crew member that looked the part as substitute, and ended up with a performance with about as much screen presence as you would expect from someone who normally works with duct tape. In truth, across the board the acting leaves much to be desired.
But, then, the writing is uninspired, flat, unintelligent, and, in opposition to the first five episodes, feels like they were desperately trying to figure out how to stretch one episode into the remaining four. And the directing is nigh inept. The scene of one character performing in drag, singing "Everything's Coming up Roses" in a supposed nightclub for which the production could not bother to supply an audience — could not even bother to supply a nightclub — was painful to watch, embarrassing for all involved, and I will admit I saved myself from three hours of agony by fast forwarding through it. One might try to justify it by saying it was homage to Micheal Jeter in The Fisher King; it came off more as lazy — exceptionally lazy — and poorly worked copying. But, then, across the board bad writing and bad directing. The whole of the episode was an unpleasant experience that I groaned through. There was great disappointment from the blatantly obvious break from what preceded, much of which lay in that the show forgets what is essential to contemporary comics: half the story is told in the art.
I nonetheless tried episode 8 because it sometimes happens in series where episodes may be directed by different people that you have one bad apple in the bunch, but it was not better. It could not cure Samunyai's cloddish performance, and those around her were not doing much better (how I hate bad child actors), if in part because of a bad script, and that the directing and production was as poor as in episode 7. Hallmark movies show more skill. Which does not excuse Samunyai — she shows herself a terrible actor. And I wonder if she is victim of a production that favored being daring over being competent. That is not a passing comment; that sense is unavoidable in episode 7. In general, the production beginning with episode 7 is so different from those preceding it I wonder if they ran out of money. I lasted only fifteen minutes of episode 8 before knowing it was not going to get better and turning it off. No one is paying me to watch that.
I have a little curiosity what is left of the series, and maybe if I am in a good enough mood to laugh at how bad it had become I might watch the rest. But, really, if you decide to watch do not expect the series to carry foward from the beginning. Watch the first five episodes, enjoy that story, enjoy Coleman and Thewlis; watch episode six, which is a little disjointed but pays off; and then stop — unless you want a glimpse of just how suddenly a series can go wrong.
Update, Feb. 25, 2023: I have since read the second volume of the Sandman books, and, to be honest, I did not like it that much. It was all over the place, paper thin (even for a comic), and had a unjustified conclusion. I probably won't be reading any more of them.