Neverwhere (DVD)

Neil Gaiman explains the underexposed, too-sharp look of his six-part, three-hour BBC miniseries Neverwhere early on his DVD commentary track: The 1996 show was shot on video but lit for film, with the understanding that it would receive post-production filtering, which was later withheld. Gaiman suggests that the many Americans who have only seen grainy bootlegged videotapes of Neverwhere may be disappointed when they see the series in its original clarity on its long-awaited DVD release. But he overestimates the romance of distorted blurriness. Anyone familiar with Dr. Who will find Neverwhere's low-tech, low-budget, cheaply stylized look familiar and tolerable enough. But as is often the case with Gaiman's work, particularly the Sandman comic-book series and spin-offs, the script is far more important than the visuals. And in this case, the flatness of the story mimics the flatness of the pictures that flesh it out, as well as the flatness of the performances that bring it to life. Neverwhere follows a common fantasy theme: the fish-out-of-water tale of an unhappy mundane dragged into a fanciful hidden world. For Gary Bakewell, the oddness begins when he helps a wounded, grubby, apparently homeless girl (Laura Fraser) against the advice of his scandalized fiancée (Elizabeth Marmur). The next day, his friends don't know him, his apartment and job are given to other people, and normal folks either don't see him or forget him as soon as he stops talking. Seeking Fraser and answers, Bakewell finds London Below, a dark fairyland based on a series of puns about London's underground-train system, and packed with colorful characters ranging from heat-vampires to talking rats and their human servants. There, Fraser is royalty, but also an endangered survivor of a plot that slaughtered her family and still targets her. Some of Neverwhere's humor will be lost on Americans, who are unlikely to be familiar with the real-world versions of the Blackfriars and Knightsbridge tube stations, or to be tickled by the untoward notion that they actually house a sect of black friars and a knight's bridge, respectively. But Gaiman's dry wit, grim sensibility, and talent for quirky, unsettling characterization come across clearly enough, as do deadpan lines like "Can't make an omelet without killing a few people." Neverwhere does have its powerful moments, as well as the unsettling sensibility of a good fairy tale, but it's one of Gaiman's least innovative projects, and the streamlining and stiff narration necessitated by the episodic format also make it one of his most pedestrian. Bakewell and Fraser's nuanceless performances don't help. Gaiman later rewrote Neverwhere as a novel, which strongly echoed similar works by fantasy authors like Charles de Lint and Emma Bull, but still managed an edge that the serviceable but unexceptional television series lacked. For Gaiman, a few well-chosen words are still worth several thousand pictures.

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