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Dead Boy Detectives review: a Sandman spinoff that stands on its own

Two men investigate a grave in Dead Boy Detectives.
Dead Boy Detectives review: a Sandman spinoff that stands on its own
“While Dead Boy Detectives isn't as serious as The Sandman, it's just as addictive, and is bolstered by a charismatic cast and fantastic visuals.”
Pros
  • A fantastic cast
  • Great world-building
  • Striking visuals
  • Moody atmosphere
Cons
  • A terrible pilot
  • Some sketchy visual effects

Television has always loved the buddy cop whodunit subgenre. From Joe Friday and Frank Smith in Dragnet to Cagney and Lacey in, well, Cagney & Lacey to Mulder and Scully in The X-Files, these duos investigated all sorts of crimes, from the abnormal to the paranormal, and millions of viewers tuned in each week to see what next mystery they would inevitably solve by each episode’s end.

This tradition continues in the streaming era with Dead Boy Detectives, an uneven yet ultimately winning new series from Netflix. While it’s technically a spinoff of The Sandman, both in its original source material and how it’s connected to Netflix’s 2022 adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s famous comic book, the show stands on its own, and is more like the WB shows of yesteryear (Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer come to mind) and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina than anything else. In its depiction of an afterlife detective agency populated by all sorts of ghosts, psychics, and outsiders, Dead Boy Detectives provides more than enough spooky thrills and unexpected screwball comedy, and is distinguished by a pair of charismatic lead performances and a story that balances many different subplots with careful aplomb.

Dead boys, detectives, psychics, and a whole lot more

Four people look down in Dead Boy Detectives.
Netflix

The show wastes no time introducing its main characters and what to expect each week. The show’s opener, The Case of Crystal Palace, lays out the blueprint: the straight-laced, by-the-book Edwin Paine (George Rexstrew) and the roguish, devil-may-care Charles Rowland (Jayden Revri) are ghostly investigators who solve crimes brought to them by their fellow spiritual brethren. They’ve been doing this for a while, as witnessed by the relaxed chemistry between Rexstrew and Revri in the episode’s opening sequence, but soon their supernatural routine is disrupted by a new arrival, Crystal (Kassius Nelson). She’s an amnesiac psychic who is very much alive, and who quickly joins the dead boys in helping other ghosts find some closure in the afterlife while also trying to figure out why she can’t remember anything about her past, save for a demonic (literally) ex-boyfriend.

As the series progresses, the trio becomes a full-blown club — an agency, if you will — comprised of various freaks, weirdoes, and animals who can morph into humans. One of the chief pleasures of Dead Boy Detectives is getting to meet these citizens of the underworld, and to witness how delicately and deliberately the show’s gothic world is built out. In the friendly column, there’s Niko (Yuyu Kitamura), who was once possessed by hostile happy sprites she now keeps in a glass jar; Tragic Mick (Michael Beach), who insists he’s an otter trapped in a man’s body; and Jenny the Butcher (Brianna Cuoco), who seems relatively normal but attracts all kinds of bad vibes (like stalkers and demons).

Thomas the Cat King sits on a chair in Dead Boy Detectives.
Netflix

Much less friendly, if not downright antagonistic, is the Night Nurse (Ruth Connell), who wants to collect the two dead boy detectives and send them to their proper place in the afterlife; Esther (Jenny Lyon), who wields a lethal cane and likes to collect young girls to feed to the goddess Lilith to achieve eternal youth; and Thomas the Cat King (Lukas Gage), whose horny gaze lands firmly on the sexually repressed Edwin.

A dynamic duo

Two men stand in a city alley in Dead Boy Detectives.
Netflix

All of these characters are types, but it’s to Dead Boy Detectives’ credit that they all feel fresh and unique. Rexstrew and Revri in particular are excellent at elevating their characters to more than what they represent. Edwin may be formal and overly fussy because of his Edwardian upbringing, but Rexstrew doesn’t make him a bore; instead, he finds the charm and comedy in Edwin’s persistence to do things his way. Revri, too, finds shades of depth in Charles, who describes himself as a brute born out of his rough upbringing in 1980s London, but who shows he is much more than than that with each subsequent episode.

The show takes its time to build out not just its two lead characters but its stacked supporting cast as well, with each actor making most of their limited screen time. There’s not a scene wasted or a performance that isn’t crucial to the show, and anyone watching television nowadays knows that a rare thing to come by.

A Gothic world you love to visit

Two men sit by a lantern in Dead Boy Detectives.
Netflix

The show’s fantastic cast of characters occupy a world that’s sufficiently Gothic enough to achieve the appropriate moody atmosphere, while also leaving room for moments of humor, romance, and drama. That was par for the course in shows like Buffy and Sabrina, and Dead Boy Detectives is wise enough to mimic what made those shows so successful. Like Sabrina‘s Greendale, DBD‘s Port Townsend, Washington, location (where most of the show is set) provides ample opportunity for striking visuals that really show off the talents of the cinematographer and production designer. In particular, there’s a couple of breathtaking shots in episode four, The Case of the Lighthouse Leapers, that would make both Edgar Allan Poe and a young Tim Burton proud.

The show’s “monster-of-the-week” format also allows it to explore different elements of this fictional world while also slowly building out several season-long narratives at the same time. For instance, episode five, The Case of the Two Dead Dragons, is focused mainly on the central mystery of how two teenage boys died at a high school party. But it also touches on, among other things, Crystal’s heated astral plane confrontations with her demonic ex-boyfriend; Niko playing matchmaker with Jenny and a mousy librarian; Esther’s ongoing quest for revenge against the detective agency; the Cat King’s curse on Edwin, which binds him and the others in Port Townsend; and Edwin’s growing realization that he’s in love with his paranormal partner.

To binge or not to binge?

Two men and two women stand next to each other in Dead Boy Detectives.
Netflix

This seems like a lot, but the episode, and indeed the entire show, never feels overstuffed. It’s busy enough to keep you tuning in and bingeing as many episodes as you can to find out the next developments of each plotline while also satisfactorily wrapping up each weekly case. The Netflix binge model has its detractors, and there are shows like Disney+’s X-Men ’97 (which drops a new episode every Wednesday) and Amazon Prime Video’s Fallout (which was released all at once) that need a traditional weekly release schedule for their audience to really savor them, but when it works, it works, and Dead Boy Detectives is best enjoyed when watching as many episodes in one sitting as you can.

Dead Boy Detectives has its flaws, with the most glaring one being that it suffers from severe pilot syndrome. The show’s opener is tonally off, busy when it doesn’t need to be, and designed to sell you (and whatever network or streamer it was shopped at) on the series’ premise. But once it settles down and finds its own oddball groove in episode two, The Case of the Dandelion Shrine, Dead Boy Detectives becomes one of Netflix’s most enjoyable original series in quite a while, even if its goals are relatively modest compared with something as grandiose The Sandman, which DBD is loosely tied to.

Much like the original comic series on which this show is based on, you don’t need to know much about The Sandman to enjoy Dead Boy Detectives. If you’re an older fan of Buffy and Angel, or a younger convert to the genre who liked Sabrina or Wednesday, Dead Boy Detectives should satisfy that urge for the strange and the supernatural.

Dead Boy Detectives season 1 is now streaming on Netflix. Digital Trends reviewed six out of the eight episodes provided by the streamer.

Editors' Recommendations

Jason Struss
Section Editor, Entertainment
Jason is a writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast whose love for cinema, television, and cheap comic books has led him to…
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