Among its other qualities, The Sandman, in its initial incarnation as a comic book series, is an enormous act of chutzpah. Written by Neil Gaiman — who shares creator credit with its first artists, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg — it asks readers to buy into nothing less than a new mythology, one based around stories of the Endless, seven anthropomorphized representations of different aspects of the human (and, in one issue, feline) experience like Destiny and Desire. At the center of those stories, at least most of the time, is Morpheus (a.k.a. Dream), a moody, knowing immortal who appears to share a wardrobe and hairdresser with Robert Smith of The Cure.
The dare pays off. The Sandman ran for 75 issues between the late 1980s and mid '90s, and its influence has stretched even further, both via direct spin-offs and the many comics and fantasy writers who've attempted to follow Gaiman's lead. Its success owes a lot to how much thought Gaiman put into the world he created, a kind of story-filled shadow universe that helped explain our own but also reflected it via flawed, fallible immortals troubled by doubts and locked into struggles of their own. Like the first gods of myth, they're extremely familiar-looking immortals.
The comic series begins well, with a story arc in which a deeply annoyed Morpheus has to track down three magic implements taken from him during a few decades spent as a prisoner in the home of an English magician. But it really gels with its eighth issue, "The Sound of Her Wings," in which Dream spends a day accompanying his sister Death — a cheery, welcoming presence — as she draws a series of Londoners away at the end of their days. It's a depiction of life as a story with a beginning and an end, one as simple in its approach as it is thought-provoking in its implications.
One of the comic's highlights, that issue also provides inspiration for half of the best episode of Netflix's The Sandman, a long-in-the-works series whose roots go back to attempts to turn the comic into a film in the early 1990s, some of which reportedly veered dramatically away from the source material (a choice this version decidedly does not make). Arriving midway through the 10-episode season, "The Sound of Her Wings" finds Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) moping at the end of the series' first adventure as he reunites with Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) in a London experiencing a breezy, lazy weekend. What follows echoes the original story almost beat for beat, as does the episode's second half, in which Death and Dream grant immortality to a man who scoffs at the idea of dying just to see what happens, another highlight of the original run.
Gaiman has been openly skeptical about some of the past attempts to adapt the book, so it's reassuring for admirers that he's deeply involved in this version, working alongside David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg, a pair of writers and producers with extensive experience adapting comics for film and TV via their work on, respectively, Christopher Nolan's Batman films and Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman (among other projects). The result is a respectful, faithful, and maybe a tad too unsurprising adaptation that benefits from a thoughtfully selected cast and creative visuals while never trying too hard to explore what a different medium could do for Gaiman's world. The fidelity that serves this season's best installment so well can be a bit too restrictive elsewhere.
As problems go, however, that's not much of one when the material is this strong, particularly in this season's first half. Following Morpheus from his imprisonment by the vain Aleister Crowley-like occult enthusiast Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) through his escape and subsequent attempts to recover a magical bag of sand, helm, and ruby, the early episodes whisk Morpheus from a meeting with modern occultist-for-hire Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman as a gender-swapped John Constantine) to Hell, where he meets Lucifer (an imperious Gwendoline Christie), to a diner in the thrall of the disturbed John Dee (David Thewlis in a magnetic performance). Each stop opens up the world a little bit while casting its central character in a slightly different light.
Coleman, Christie, Howell-Baptiste, Vivienne Acheampong (who plays Morpheus' librarian/second-in-command Lucienne), and others are all examples of The Sandman casting without regard to the race or sex of the comic book characters and benefitting from it. All are excellent, as is Patton Oswalt as the voice of Matthew, a recently deceased human reborn as a raven in Morpheus' service. The character's skeptical, comic notes give the series a touch of levity — it's goth but not just goth — and provides a graceful reason for Morpheus and the others to explain what's going on, especially once the plot shifts to talk of dream vortexes and other mythological convolutions in the season's second half.
It's there that The Sandman slows down to tell an extended story (an adaptation of the comic's "A Doll's House" arc) and gets bogged down a bit in the process. Shifting focus to a new cast of (mostly) human supporting players led by Kyo Ra as Rose Walker, a young woman who unknowingly has ties to Dream, it's well played but a bit too shallowly realized. That's particularly evident in a long stretch set at a convention for serial killers that feels more glib and cartoonish than scary, and in a subplot involving Lyta Hall (Razane Jammal), a recent widow who reunites with her husband in the Dream Country, which carries surprisingly little emotional weight, particularly when compared to some of the heartbreaking moments in the "The Sound of Her Wings."
It's in these later episodes that the series' commitment to staying so close to the source material starts to become an issue as plot takes precedence over characters. It's a compelling story, though, told in a way that's designed to satisfy longtime fans while remaining welcoming to newcomers. This season strays a bit from what makes its earliest installments work in its second half, but it doesn't stray that far, and with a lot of story left to tell there's plenty in The Sandman's first season to make it easy to want to hear the rest of it.
Premieres: Friday, Aug. 5 on Netflix
Who's in it: Tom Sturridge, Gwendoline Christie, Vivienne Acheampong, Boyd Holbrook, Charles Dance, Jenna Coleman
Who's behind it: Neil Gaiman, David S. Goyer, Allan Heinberg
For fans of: Neil Gaiman's universe, Inventive mythology
How many episodes we watched: 10 out of 10