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TV review: ‘The Sandman’ suggests some comic books are better left off-screen

Tom Sturridge as Dream and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death in “The Sandman.”  (Netflix)
Tom Sturridge as Dream and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death in “The Sandman.” (Netflix)
By Inkoo Kang Washington Post

Godlike beings guiding the dreams, desires and deaths of mankind mingle with Satan, Shakespeare, Barbie and serial killers in the mythological and pop-cultural hodgepodge of “The Sandman.”

Not unlike a reverie, the 10-part adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic book series brooks no borders. The Netflix fantasy drama goes to hell and back – just one of several world-hopping adventures taken up by the gloomy and self-serious immortal we’re saddled with as the protagonist. Then again, if the only power I were granted as a supernatural being was the ability to manipulate dreams – while my siblings spend their days ending lives or creating new ones – I might turn out to be quite the grump, too.

Gaiman’s staggeringly popular comic series, which debuted in 1989, is sprawling, diffuse and exactingly concise; the deity-esque Dream’s (Tom Sturridge) descent into Lucifer’s (Gwendoline Christie) realm, for instance, only takes up about two dozen image-dominated pages, and then it’s on to the next destination (Gotham’s Arkham Asylum).

It’s not surprising, then, that it’s taken so long for “The Sandman” to make it to screen (in this version, shorn of all references to DC characters and settings). The fleeting, peripatetic plots seldom yield emotional revelations, and there’s no shortage of characters – many with multiple names – to keep track of. Given the pure comic-bookiness of the source material, the show is a feat of print-to-screen translation, with enough narrative rearrangement to create convincing through lines across the season. And yet the overall results are so shaggy and uneven, with characters and incidents from the comics that add little to the story on screen, that the reasons to adapt “The Sandman” never exceed the reasons not to have done so.

In a rather human twist, Dream’s existence is upended by World War I. A cruel sorcerer (Charles Dance) who lost his son to battle hopes to resurrect him by capturing Death but ends up conjuring and imprisoning Dream, instead. By the time the immortal frees himself more than a century later, he finds his kingdom ruined, humanity sleep-disordered and the talismans that hold his power scattered to the winds. And so Dream embarks on a journey to recover his possessions, while a disloyal subordinate – a nightmare-turned-serial-killer named The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) with a rather grisly MO – plots his creator’s demise.

The first half of the transatlantic season is intentionally disjointed and far from satisfying. Hardly any of the characters – including, most inexcusably, the Devil herself (!) – feel fleshed out, and the conflicts tend to sputter out with all the drama of a sat-upon whoopee cushion. The sole exception is an absconder of one of the magical objects, played by David Thewlis, who wrings some Freudian pathos from his damaged character, a wronged man who has yet to realize he’s become a monster.

In these early installments, Dream himself is too often stuck in exposition mode, officiously explaining the etiquette protocols of various realms like an underworld Emily Post. He’s not any more interesting when intoning wispily New Age-y threats such as “If dreams disappear, then so will humanity.” Costumed like a “Twilight” vampire and given little chance to emote, Sturridge quickly begins to drag down his scenes, while the sporadic attempts at humor by his winged spy, the raven Matthew (voiced by Patton Oswalt), feel jarringly out-of-place. (Oswalt is joined in comic-relief duties by Mark Hamill, who gives voice to a cranky janitor in the dream world with a jack o’lantern for a head.)

Viewers who stick around until the sixth episode will be treated to the strongest of the episodic chapters – a saga spanning some 600 years in an ancient English pub that also introduces Dream’s older sister, Death (a gently cheerful Kirby Howell-Baptiste). In a mischievous mood, the siblings grant the wish of a man who wants to live forever (Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Ben). He and Dream proceed to meet up once a century. Kingsley exhibits an avuncular, life-savoring charm that builds to a vulnerable gravitas, while the storyline broaches the most compelling (if ultimately underdeveloped) aspect of Dream’s rule over the collective unconscious: that he does not understand the joys or miseries of “the waking world” despite his power over it.

The final four serialized installments converge upon a “Cereal Convention,” where the story’s key players gather amid smugly whimsical murderers that underscore the show’s penchant for derivative gore and anticlimactic resolutions. The rocky performances and wavering accents among the secondary cast members parallel the disappointingly unimaginative (and not particularly lavish) special effects.

But the series’ greatest drawback is a holdover from the comics themselves – their epic scale unable to be fully conveyed by the narrative itinerancy and the oneiric, plot-dependent logic governing these universes. Dream rails that his initial captors have no concept of the damage they’ve inadvertently wrought upon the world, but the show doesn’t really project that, either. I suppose a world without dreams might be bad, but a world without having to listen to other people describing their dreams sounds like a material improvement. You’ll have to already believe that the delirium and detritus that haunt us in our sleep matter; “The Sandman” certainly won’t convince you of it.

”The Sandman” (10 episodes) is streaming on Netflix.

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