The Television Critics Association, of which I am a long-standing member, handed out its annual awards on the weekend. Roughly 200 people who write about TV made a list and voted. The top winner, with five nominations and four wins, including Program of the Year, was Abbott Elementary. The ABC comedy airs on Global in Canada and streams on Disney+ here.
It won because it’s fresh, funny, a little weird and has a lot of heart. Made as a mockumentary, it features the teachers at a very underfunded Philadelphia primary school. Explaining the alchemy that makes it a standout is hard; let’s just say it defies expectation by being both social commentary and fun.
If you’re looking for fun, stay away from The Sandman (streaming on Netflix), a new arrival that has generated more coverage than is necessary. Apparently, there have been many attempts to adapt Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed and bestselling graphic-novel series, but all have failed before now. This time, a great deal of time and money was spent on 10 episodes for Netflix, all of it scandalously wasted. It is a destination not worth the journey; it is sleep-inducing piffle.
Sleep is the gist of the whole thing. There’s this fella, who introduces himself with, “For I am the King of Dreams. And nightmares.” Right, well, by the end of the first episode he’s moseying around like a member of the band the Cure circa 1988. But rather than delivering a catchy tune, poor chap Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) is still droning about dreams.
See, the misfortunate fella went out on an errand and got caught accidentally by a rich and eccentric magician (Charles Dance) who was hoping to bring the dead back to life. Instead, he captured moody old Morpheus and kept him in a glass cage, naked as a jaybird, for decades. You do sympathize a bit, because the opening episode feels decades long.
What’s happening, you know, is the step-by-step creation of the fantasy world that Neil Gaiman brought into being, using a smorgasbord of ancient mythologies and Jungian psychology. Morpheus, sometimes just called Dream, is the lord of our collective unconscious. There are others who try to control humanity’s hopes and dreams, including Desire (Mason Alexander Park) and Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Most of these characters are played by skilled British actors who have the training and knack for making highfalutin nonsense seem grave and important. Charles Dance could probably do the role he’s given here in his sleep. But then, he’d be in a dream-like state and the series is already filled with too much material about dreams.
Anyway, the upshot is that Morpheus, after being freed, wants his stuff back: “My sand, my helm, my ruby,” he declares. This is the stuff that makes him powerful, but they were pilfered when he was in that cage. Other people, or creatures, want them too, of course. And so the alleged adventure spins on and on. Will he get his stuff back? Your clue to the meaning of it all is in our glum hero’s statement: “Dreams rarely survive in the waking world. Nightmares, on the other hand, seem to thrive there.”
Well, we knew that. Based on this adaptation, it is hard to figure out the attraction of the material. It’s meant to be a fantasy series for adults, but it seems childlike in its depiction of epic themes. The visuals are dark, occasionally stunning, and yet you wonder what is the point of it all. Netflix has done an unusual thing with the opening episode. Instead of sending you seamlessly to the second, it offers a batch of highlights of forthcoming episodes, as if needing to entice you with the promise of mischief and real drama following the first disappointing hour of grumpy pretension.
The cultural significance of The Sandman is unclear from this expensively made hooey. Dreams matter, but we all know that having someone you neither know well nor care about describe their dreams to you is boring. It’s a no-fun experience and what we need now is fun, not this overwrought and underwritten hocus-pocus poppycock.
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