How Netflix’s ‘The Sandman’ Manages to Blend Multiple Genres, According to Its Creators

Neil Gaiman and Allan Heinberg explain how the show balances so many different tones and inspirations

Netflix's The Sandman
David Thewlis in Netflix's "The Sandman." (Netflix)

As fans of Netflix’s “The Sandman” feast on its first season, released Friday, they may begin to notice the show’s pseudo-episodic structure that delivers a wide range of genres, tones, and self-contained stories. At one moment, the series is delving deep into the mystic arts, the next moment it’s lightheartedly traversing centuries of human history, and the next moment it’s careening into classic horror. Of course, this scope resembles executive producer and writer Neil Gaiman’s original comic series, which he created as an exercise that would allow him to do anything from issue to issue. But as a TV series, Gaiman was told repeatedly through the years it wasn’t possible to mix all the various elements that comprised his acclaimed source material.

On his first-ever TV show meeting years ago with the first director who looked over his scripts, Gaiman was told that a small screen adaptation of “The Sandman” would be incoherent because the material was funny, sad, horrifying, and adventurous all at once. But picking just one lane to operate in never appealed to the creator and he patiently waited until an adaptation could offer the full breadth of his original intentions.

“I intentionally sat down and created the first eight issues of the comic saying, ‘Okay, this one is going to be classic English horror, this one I’m going to do an old horror comic, this one I’ll do contemporary Ramsey Campbell and Clyde Barker kind of horror, this one I’m going to do 1940s American fantasy,” Gaiman told TheWrap. “So there was a whole planned route through it and that set the template for me to go anywhere for the rest of ‘Sandman.’ Whatever I wanted to do, ‘Sandman’ was broad shouldered enough to take it.”

This approach set the tone for Netflix’s “The Sandman,” which remixes mythology with gleeful abandon as it leaps from terrifying chamber piece bottle episodes set in an American diner to grand explorations of spiritual realms beyond the grasp of mere mortals. That’s a lot for just one series. But showrunner Allan Heinberg hopes there’s always a thematic through line guiding the ambitious pendulum swings.

“We didn’t steer into any genre directorially or editorially, we just tried to deliver the emotional truth of every moment no matter what time period we were in,” Heinberg told TheWrap. “Whether it’s a horrifying moment or Cain and Able — I think it scared people because, tonally, it’s very different from where we’re in the Burgess household for an entire episode. But I feel the show has a unified storytelling voice of its own. The way we present these new worlds and new characters I hope allows the audience to accept them on their own terms and embrace them.”

The idea of being anything at any time is creatively appealing, but not always easy to pull off. But it’s that swing for the fences approach that Gaiman hopes will separate “The Sandman” from its fantasy peers as the genre has become more popular than ever.

“You don’t expect a random episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ to be the funny one where you get a cooking lesson and then everybody goes off to the party and nobody gets laid or killed or betrayed, but they all have a fabulous time,” Gaiman said. “Whereas in ‘Sandman,’ I could do that if I wanted to.”