This past week I watched the eleven episodes of the first (and possibly only) season of the Netflix adaptation of The Sandman (2022), which is based on the famous Neil Gaiman comic series, The Sandman (1989-1996), considered by many to be one of the greatest graphic novels ever.
I think live-action adaptations of comics and animated shows are very hard to get right. And Netflix seems to have a bad history when it comes to adaptations, even of live shows (they’ve had a number of notable fails along those lines). On the other hand, Gaiman was attached to, and involved in, the production, which seemed hopeful.
But to say I was disappointed by the series is putting it mildly.
My parents had one hell of a child-rearing weapon in their arsenal. They didn’t need to spank or yell (and, with rare and understandable exceptions never did). They just expressed their disappointment. Which was devastating.
It worked because my sister and I never wanted to disappoint our parents. We naturally wanted them proud of and pleased with us. Unfortunately, it seems that neither Netflix nor Gaiman is interested in making the long-time fans of the original work proud or pleased. They apparently have a different audience in mind. One that thrives on wokeness rather than good storytelling.
Word from Gaiman himself is that Netflix isn’t planning a second season (despite supposedly good reviews and audience response). The reason he cites is that fans didn’t binge watch the series. (Which seems damned strange when streaming platforms are returning to doling out weekly episodes for many of their shows. It’s also, once again, blaming the fans for a bad show. Let me be blunt, Neil: GFY!)
I suspect the real reason is that the long-time fans were turned off to the aggressive wokeness and changes thereof, and new fans were likely puzzled, lost, or just bored. Among other issues, the series has dreadful pacing and almost no energy level. And, oddly, the series was often gutless and coy about certain horrific aspects of the story.
My bottom line, the Rotten Tomatoes 87% critics / 80% audience score notwithstanding, is that, over the eleven episodes, my rating went from Eh! to Meh! to Nah! and finally to Ugh! The series is a waste of time.
In anticipation, I re-read the graphic novel (which takes up four-and-a-half inches of shelf space). I wanted the story to be fresh in my mind. That’s often a mistake; adaptations so rarely live up to their source (let alone surpass it). In this case, I found the adaptation so bad that it hardly mattered. I would have disliked the show even without the close comparison.
The Wikipedia article for the TV series mentions that Patton Oswalt was the first actor cast. He’s the voice of Matthew the Raven, and it turns the part into a joke. The moment I heard his instantly identifiable voice, I was taken out of the story. I generally like Oswalt (though he’s become a bit of a SNAG), but I think casting him was a huge mistake. It made it impossible to take Matthew seriously. It’s a tonal mismatch in an otherwise deadly serious story.
Two other choices were a serious detriment for me: the casting of Dream’s older sister Death, and the casting of Lucifer. Death is a fan favorite. She’s definitely my favorite character from the comic, and I’ve always been fancifully torn between hoping to see her when I died versus seeing Terry Pratchett’s DEATH. Both are amazing and wonderful fictional figures to me.
This takes us into tricky waters. They cast Kirby Howell-Baptiste, a Black woman, as Death. Tricky because how can I complain about casting a POC when that’s something I usually support? And how can I know whether deep-seated subliminal racism is a part of my objection?
I can say I was utterly charmed (and then some) by Howell-Baptiste’s performance as neuroscientist Simone Garnett in The Good Place (2016-2020). And when it comes to mythological characters, their appearance is certainly fluid. Plus, the way characters in long-running series appear changes (slightly) as different artists draw them.
But Death is the “pale rider” — often depicted as a bone-white skeleton. We say, “as pale as death” and “beyond the pale.” Death famously rides a white horse. The Chinese associate the color white with death. If any of the Endless should be pale, it seems it should be Death. (And I ask, is making Death the one Black sibling perhaps a bit too on the nose?)
As depicted in the comic, Death is a quirky goth chick, always dressed in black and filled with compassion for the souls she ushers to their next realm. She’s instrumental getting her brother to see humanity with more compassion. (Or with any, really.) And damnit, she’s a character a lot of us fell a bit in love with and Howell-Baptiste’s low-energy performance just doesn’t pull it off. Instead of quirky, she’s portentous. And boring.
The chapter that introduces her, “The Sound of Her Wings” (episode six in the adaptation), is widely considered one of the best chapters of the graphic novel, and it was heartbreaking to watch such a pedestrian implementation. I really wanted to see that quirky goth chick.
About race and the seven Endless. In both the comic and the TV series, Dream appears to his ancient African lover, Nada, imprisoned in Hell for 10,000 years because she refused Dream, as an African. Of course he does. All avatars should appear in culture. We see what we expect to see.
Gaiman missed the chance to do that more often in the novel, and the writers (with Gaiman’s blessing) missed the chance to do it here (except for that one bit with Nada). There were so many missed opportunities. That would have been the perfect setup for some diversity. A big objection I have about the TV series is its stunning lack of imagination. So many missed chances.
For instance, when Death (with Dream accompanying) takes the old Jew, his soul form should be younger. Don’t we all see ourselves as younger? Don’t we all remember our best youthful selves? Freed from earthy bonds, why wouldn’t a soul take on a younger aspect?
In the TV series we never meet Destruction, Destiny, or Delirium, but Dream, Desire, and Despair, are white. The show is filled with race (and some gender) swapping, so I’m not sure why they needed to make the one sibling Black. Perhaps they intended it for one or more of the other Endless we didn’t meet.
And why not more Asians? They comprise nearly 60% of humanity.
The other choice I thought was a big mistake was casting Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer. I think they had in mind that Lucifer is a fallen Angel, and Angels are often depicted as female in appearance (unless they’re depicted as objects of horror).
Christie was apparently a fan favorite on Game of Thrones, where she played Brienne of Tarth. My understanding is that Brienne had two primary character traits: awesome warrior; unattractive woman. (I bailed on GoT after the second season, so this is hearsay.) FWIW, while I wouldn’t call Christie stunning, she’s nowhere near unattractive.
But Lucifer Morningstar was the fairest Angel of them all. He — yes, he, goddamnit (literally in his case!) — had the stones to rebel against God in Heaven. Lucifer has gravitas. He’s a major player, ruler of Hell. I’m sorry, but Christie isn’t anywhere close to filling those shoes.
Thing is, in the comic, Lucifer quits Hell, goes to Earth, and, along with Mazikeen of the LIlim, opens a nightclub named Lux. That is the basis of the TV series Lucifer (2016-2021), which I loved. Tom Ellis, from the first episode, absolutely owned that part with his screen presence and devilish grin. Lesley-Ann Brandt likewise owned Maze. They both knocked it out of the park.
Christie is still looking for parking at the park.
It’s no surprise that the elements I thought worked were elements rendered generally faithfully. Let’s be honest. For fans of the comic, the draw is seeing a reasonably faithful adaptation. Otherwise, why watch?
Cain and Abel. Sanjeev Bhaskar plays the murderous Cain; Asim Chaudhry plays his constantly murdered brother Abel. I applaud casting men of Middle Eastern descent in these roles (both are actually British). It’s exactly as should be. After all, the originals were exactly that (Middle Eastern, not British). Bravo on that.
I noticed that they killed off Gregory the gargoyle almost immediately. I’m betting it’s because the CGI there was pretty awful. And maybe too expensive to animate such a large animal? At least they kept Goldie.
The Three Fates, likewise, are women of Middle Eastern descent (Souad Faress as Crone, Nina Wadia as Mother, and Dinita Gohil as Maiden). Brava! That’s the way to do it. Fidelity to origin and meaning. Not a difficult concept one would think.
That said, I might have done more CGI to blend them in a shifting collage. Lack of imagination and creativity is a big issue in this series.
The Corinthian, Dream’s escaped serial killer nightmare, rather steals the show. Boyd Holbrook owns that role and commands the screen every time he appears. Again, in no small part due to how faithfully he is implemented. There are changes, to be sure, but none that took me out of the story.
In some regards, the Corinthian was one of the best parts of the series. A genuine nightmare. And yet, an almost likeable character.
I also (mostly) enjoyed the sequence with Hob Gadling (Ferdinand Kingsley), Dream’s friend over hundreds of years (because Death allows him to live indefinitely). I did think the “are we friends” part could have been done better.
At this point, I’m torn between making this very long or dividing it into a two-parter. Or just shaking my head and walking away.
Ultimately, the question of how a story is told, and even what is done with existing characters, really is up to those who tell the story. It is what it is. But stories are two-way contracts between teller and audience. We are allowed to dislike a story for whatever reason. Our recourse with stories we don’t like, or that disappoint us, is simply to walk away.
Which, despite what some media outlets suggest, may be what’s happening. The RT 87/80 score suggests audiences aren’t seeing what critics see. Metacritic gives it a 66 (out of 100) metascore and a 5.5 (out of 10) user score. I suspect some may be afraid to criticize the wokefulness, especially the race swapping (which is rampant).
One aspect of this is that we can no longer trust streaming platforms to be forthcoming, or sometimes even honest, about audience response. But word is that Netflix isn’t buying a season two. (That could change, of course.)
I still have three pages of notes, most of which I have yet to touch on. I’m going to stop here and start another post for those notes. Whether I publish it or not remains to be seen. Part of me wants to just forget I watched this, and I’m not sure I want to spend more time on it. I have better things to do.
Stay in the dream, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.