A star rating of 4 out of 5.

It's not surprising that trust in Netflix is eroding as of late, given the wonky quality of the streamer's output and its recent itchy trigger finger around cancelling shows. However, when something like The Sandman comes along, you're reminded of the value of the platform, as surely no other outlet on the entertainment landscape would (or could) have invested so much in such a gamble. A live-action adaptation of Neil Gaiman's seminal comic book has been languishing in development hell for decades, with many declaring the source material unadaptable. Well, readers: they've only gone and done it.


The opening episode of The Sandman is one of the strongest hours of television we've seen this year, telling the century-spanning story of how Dream (Tom Sturridge) – one of several Endless beings – is trapped in the mortal world by occult practitioners. They were really after his older sibling, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), although cult leader Sir Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) soon discovers that the power of any personified concept has its perks. However, the imprisonment has dire consequences for both the human world and beyond, so order must be restored once Dream regains his freedom.

None of this would have worked without perfect casting of the title role, so it was wise of the creative team to conduct an exhaustive search including hundreds of auditions (notably, Gaiman claims the true number to be more than a thousand). Theatre actor Tom Sturridge is an inspired choice, bringing appropriate gravitas to the role. Not only does he look as if he just strolled over from the comic book page, but his voice strikes an authoritative tone that brings credibility to every threat and commands attention even in quieter scenes.

Another standout star is Boyd Holbrook (Narcos), who is on top form as The Corinthian, an escaped nightmare who wreaks havoc on the mortal realm as a serial killer with a particularly nasty modus operandi. He's the villain you'll love to hate, with Holbrook portraying him as the smooth, charming type who seems to leave everyone with butterflies in their stomach (not literally, I should clarify). Unfortunately, the character's distinctive appearance from the comics – which I won't spoil here for anyone unaware – is one of the few visual effects in this show that doesn't look particularly convincing.

Boyd Holbrook plays The Corinthian in The Sandman
Boyd Holbrook plays The Corinthian in The Sandman Netflix

On the opposite end of the charm spectrum is David Thewlis as John Dee, a sociopathic character associated with one of the darkest chapters in the entire Sandman comic book series, which is indeed tackled here. Set within the confines of a 24-hour diner, the story sees him unleash the power of a magical artefact on unsuspecting customers with devastating consequences. Just as in the source material, the story simmers away with an unrelenting tension, which is only heightened by the claustrophobic score from composer David Buckley.

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While not a perfect translation, it's an admirably bold choice of executive producers Gaiman and Allan Heinberg to throw in such a grim tale halfway through their debut season with little warning. If there's any chance it could turn off faint-hearted viewers, those very same people should be easily won back by the next instalment: a genuinely heartwarming affair introducing Howell-Baptiste as Death. Therein lies the beauty of The Sandman. The saga is simply overflowing with fascinating ideas, which allows each episode to have a unique hook and function almost as a standalone story. This also excludes the series from Netflix's frequent pacing issues, with occasional lags in the storytelling quickly corrected with a subversive twist.

What proves harder to shake is dialogue that devolves into unnatural drivel at times, clearly designed to heavy-handedly position characters where they need to be or dump some of the considerable exposition needed to navigate this universe. Patton Oswalt is saddled with most of this in his voice role as Dream's new raven pal, Matthew, whose only purpose is to blurt out any questions that viewers might have. It doesn't help that Oswalt is horrendously miscast, with his abrasive and instantly recognisable tone feeling completely out of place among the otherwise understated world of the show.

Gwendoline Christie plays Lucifer Morningstar in The Sandman
Gwendoline Christie plays Lucifer in The Sandman Netflix

Indeed, The Sandman's most surprising casting decisions prove to be the most disappointing. Jenna Coleman is weak as modern-day sorcerer Johanna Constantine, whose cliché backstory is outdone only by her dubious cockney accent, which seems to come and go at random. She fares only slightly better as the character's 18th century counterpart. Meanwhile, for all Heinberg's talk of her "rock star" credentials, Gwendoline Christie is surprisingly dull as Lucifer Morningstar, proving less menacing and less fun than even the Tom Ellis version – which I was no fan of, it should be made clear.

These missteps aside, The Sandman's large ensemble cast is a success overall and its diversity in particular is a triumph. All too often, we see token representation that feels like a cynical box-tick exercise, but here it's quite obvious that careful consideration was given to who is best-suited for these iconic roles. From relative unknowns Vivienne Acheampong and Vanesu Samunyai (aka Kyo Ra) as Dream's librarian Lucienne and mortal Rose Walker respectively, to Mason Alexander Park and the aforementioned Howell-Baptiste as endless siblings Desire and Death.

Tom Sturridge and Kirby Howell-Baptiste in The Sandman.
Tom Sturridge and Kirby Howell-Baptiste in The Sandman Netflix

Of course, casting is just one aspect of bringing The Sandman to life; praise must also go to the visual effects and production design teams, whose tireless work allows these performers to be at their very best. At a time when so many shows are reliant on blue screen or the recently developed digital wall technology, it's a breath of fresh air to see practical effects implemented wherever possible. Flourishes range from the creepy caverns of Hell to the Dreaming's lavish library and even the use of actual ravens on-set, all of which help to bring an extra sense of realism to the show. However, that's not to devalue the excellent CGI, which is leagues ahead what we've seen in some recent cinema releases and gracefully complements the physical locations.

Gaiman has long-promised to block any bad adaptations of The Sandman from getting made, and I'm relieved to report that he has stayed true to his word. The first season of this Netflix adaptation is extremely faithful to the source material – from delirious diners to "cereal" conventions – bringing the world of the esteemed comic book into live-action with appropriate visual flair. Any imperfections, of which there are several, are easily forgiven when the show gets so much right. All in all, this long-awaited live-action version of The Sandman is a vision that Dream himself could have conjured. And who knows? Maybe he did.

The Sandman is available to stream on Netflix from Friday 5th August 2022. Check out more of our Fantasy coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.


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