Netflix’s Delightful Dead Boy Detectives Makes a Strong Argument for Sandman Supremacy

TV Reviews Netflix
Netflix’s Delightful Dead Boy Detectives Makes a Strong Argument for Sandman Supremacy

Though Netflix has its fair share of must-see originals—The Witcher, Stranger Things, The Crown, to name just a few—the streamer has yet to successfully launch a franchise universe in the same way that competitors like Disney+ (Star Wars, Marvel) and Prime Video (The Boys) have managed. Technically, it’s come close, a couple of times. The mega-popular period drama Bridgerton spawned successful limited prequel series Queen Charlotte, but there’s no sign yet that the spinoff will continue beyond its first season, and while the streamer continues to greenlight a seemingly endless array of series based on Harlan Coben’s novels, the shows and their characters aren’t directly connected to one another. (We won’t even talk about the disaster that was The Witcher: Blood Origin.) But it seems as though Netflix has finally—if somewhat accidentally—figured out that whole franchise thing with the arrival of Dead Boy Detectives, the first installment of its newly expanded The Sandman universe, and a genuinely charming supernatural drama in its own right. 

Given how simple its premise is—a pair of best friends who also happen to be ghosts solve supernatural crimes—Dead Boy Detectives has a surprisingly complex history. Its characters were originally introduced in the fourth volume (“Season of Mists”) of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman before being granted a spinoff comic of their own, but the television series based on their story was initially slated to launch on Max as part of its larger DC Television Universe. That version of the show would have had all its overt Sandman references removed since they’d exist on rival streamers, but in the wake of James Gunn’s decision to essentially reboot the DC franchise for a third time, the show was left floundering. Enter Netflix and one no-brainer of a decision: suddenly, the Sandman connection is restored, and the streamer has an obvious roadmap to genuine franchise success. 

Dead Boy Detectives follows the story of Edwin Payne (George Rexstrew) and Charles Rowland (Jayden Revri), two ghosts who became best friends after their deaths. Now, they refuse to part from one another, even if staying together means spending most of their time avoiding and running from Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), the member of the Endless charged with escorting souls to whatever afterlife is meant to come next for each of them. Rather than move on, they’ve founded the Dead Boy Detectives, an investigative agency meant to solve supernatural mysteries and help ghosts find the answers that could give them a shot at peace.

Though the two BFFs hail from different times—Edwin died in 1916, Charles in 1990—their bond feels warm and lived-in, with a dorky opposites-attract vibe that swiftly establishes who they are and how they relate to one another. (Their deaths, for the record, are both explained over the course of the season and don’t require viewers to possess any prior knowledge of Netflix’s The Sandman or Gaiman’s comics.) Fussy Edwin is polite, emotionally repressed, and the designated “brains” of their partnership. He’s got an extensive library of occult research books, weapons-grade PTSD from a stint trapped in Hell, some seriously unspoken sexual tension with his BFF, and a genuine desire to do good for those lost souls whose cases would otherwise go unsolved. Charles, for his part, is outgoing and charming, the “brawn” half of their professional relationship that’s meant to balance out Edwin’s overt and occasionally off-putting nerdiness. The keeper of an essentially bottomless backpack that can hold anything thanks to a conveniently placed transdimensional doorway, he picks locks, throws punches, and is willing to do anything to keep Edwin from being forced to go back to Hell. 

The series’ eight episodes (all of which were available for review) are largely framed around a series of case-of-the-week-style investigations, with a handful of overarching plots tying them all together. When a case introduces them to teen medium Crystal Palace (Kassius Nelson), the Dead Boy Detective Agency slowly begins to expand. Crystal’s presence (as well as the search for the memories she’s missing) complicates both the way they do business—it’s certainly much easier to interact with the living if one of your employees is alive—but the relationship between Charles and Edwin, who have, after all, spent literal decades existing almost solely in one another’s company. Trapped in the town of Port Townsend, Washington thanks to a curse from the local Cat King (Lukas Gage) and at odds with a powerful immortal witch (Jenn Lyon) who likes to consume little girls to stay young, the group finds themselves in danger from all sides, even as they do what they can to help the local ghosts move on. 

Though it was likely not initially designed that way, Dead Boy Detectives feels very much of a piece with Netflix’s Sandman, with its frequently dark setting, its more pronounced horror elements, and its liberal use of some fairly disturbing imagery involving blood, death, and torture. But its younger characters and occasional YA feel give the series a completely different focus, even as it acknowledges the uncomfortably liminal space both Charles and Edwin occupy as beings who are neither of the world nor entirely beyond it. (And who are also both technically decades older than the teens they’re hanging around with.) That it struggles to make its various relationship dramas as compelling as its supernatural investigations is a flaw one hopes the series will be able to work out with time.

But at the end of the day, the series succeeds because of the performance of its two leads, and the genuinely delightful chemistry between stars Rexstrew and Revri ultimately covers a multitude of sins. Nothing about this show works if you don’t believe that Charles and Edwin care enough about one another to defy all the powers of the afterlife that wish to separate them, and while the precise nature of their relationship tends to skirt the line between dedicated eternal life partners and maybe something more, there’s little doubt that the two are the most important figures in each others’ lives, even as other potential love interests and emotional connections weave in and out of their stories.

Entertaining, often quite weird, and strangely charming by turns, Dead Boy Detectives doesn’t quite reach the emotional and narrative heights of The Sandman. But it’s a good time in its own right, and its existence serves as an important reminder that there is (so much) more to this fictional world than Tom Sturridge’s Dream, and plenty of hidden corners worth exploring. Here’s hoping this adventure is just the first of many. 

Dead Boy Detectives premieres April 25th on Netflix.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV

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