This past Monday FOX premiered its much-anticipated haunted Fall show Sleepy Hollow, a modern-day remake of Irving Washington’s classic tale. With a story that seems part X-Files, part National Treasure and just a wee bit Rip Van Winkle (also by Irving), the show takes risks, plays it safe elsewhere and exploits some popular tropes to spin out a semi-original tale that’s admittedly lots of fun.
Sleepy Hollow starts off just where you’d expect it to given the trailers, in the middle of the Revolutionary War. There Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a Continental soldier fighting a pitched battle with the British. In the middle of the fight, who should enter the fray but a towering Red Coat who looks like he is part Sauron, wielding a big ass axe and some terrifying contraption shrouding his head. Crane tries to shoot him down, but that does little good and the giant soldier near kills him–until Crane lops off his head with his own sword. He blacks out after that, only to wake up in some subterranean crypt in the 21st century. Well that’s a helluva thing!
Meanwhile, in a 21st century town called Sleepy Hollow, population 144,000 (catch the Revelations type Biblical reference?), Lt. Abbie Mills (Nichole Beharie) sits at a restaurant with her partner (veteran actor Clancy Brown) contemplating her final days on the force, as she’s heading to the FBI. Their dinner is interrupted by a call to go investigate strange happenings at a local farm. Who do they find? None other than our giant of a British soldier, now missing one head, but still pretty damn nice with that double-sided axe. And without giving away what’s next, let’s just say for the remainder of this pilot, heads will roll!
All in all, the pilot was enjoyable. It was certainly refreshing to see an African-American woman, Nichole Beharie, as well as Orlando Jones and John Cho (dude, is there some small-big role you are not in? putting in work!) round out the PoC spots as main characters. Yeah Tom Mison plays the lead role, and the posters certainly give him top billing. But we have PoC throughout that are more than sidekicks. Orlando Jones even sent out a hilarious tweet the night of the pilot, assuring that the usual trope of the black guy dying early would not be followed, declaring: “I’ll be the black guy with a head.” Nichole Beharie’s character is both believable and holds her own–not a character that can be reduced to merely “strong” or “positive,” but with some nuance; though she’s certainly not playing some damsel in distress. Turns out, she’s even very much tied to these strange events. The Headless Horseman himself is as creepy as you need him to be–not as much as Christopher Walken’s version, but who in the heck is as creepy as Christopher Walken? And I don’t mean just as the horseman, I mean in real life! Christopher Walken is downright scary! Period!
The storyline itself isn’t altogether new, going down some well-trodden paths that promises to include a hodgepodge of Biblical conspiracies, secret witch covens and more, knitted into something approaching originality. There are some daring cinematic shots, action scenes and special effects that are impressive for prime time television, including one with an uber-baddie and a mirror that will kinda freak you the hell out. And once the story starts, it certainly gets going and gets going quick–but manages to leave room to breathe and flesh out a plot. It’s not Breaking Bad in the dialogue department, but it’s tenable. Yes, the mundane 21st characters do tend to accept the seeming impossible rather quickly, and the story manages to give us an ending where every piece has conveniently fallen into place to set up the season. But I actually prefer that to the usual trope of dragging it out, where we spend the next few weeks trying to “convince” everyone of the fantastic.
Where the story stumbles is probably when, despite its attempts to defy conventional norms, it finds itself reverting to the typical. This Ichabod Crane is a dashing, hunky and fearless former British soldier turned Revolutionary militiaman, more sword-wielding Aragorn than the Connecticut schoolteacher of Washington Irving’s tale, described as lanky and altogether odd–with “feet that might have served for shovels…and [a]…frame most loosely hung together.” While he shows some mild surprise at finding Nicole Beharie an “emancipated” black lady cop, we are quickly informed he was an abolitionist. Of course. All the white guys that could be sent back from the 18th century, and we are fortunate enough to land an abolitionist. My goodness, aren’t the white guilt gods forever benevolent? Never mind that being an abolitionist in the 1770s was often divorced from ideas of racial equality and that he might also be willing to go massacre some “savage Indians” or have Beharie arrested on sight as one of the many runaways flocking to the British lines during the war; this Ichabod Crane is almost a modern-day progressive (bet he’s also pretty keen on same-sex-marriage) and acclimates soon enough with only a few humorous lines of discomfort.
How brave it might have been to present Crane as an actual man of his times, and let the continuing awkwardness over issues of race, gender, power and difference of a temporally displaced refugee linger. But hey, it’s a show about a guy without a head who lops off other people’s heads, so…. not expecting a fairly accurate treatise on the inherent contradictions of slavery and freedom during the Revolutionary War. Still, a disgruntled Haradrim can dream can’t he? The show has gotten some accolades (and rightly deserves them) for even breaching the issue; but I’ll be impressed when they send Colonel Tye and the Ethiopian Regiment back to the 21st century, to settle the score.
The patriotic rhetoric of the original Irving tale (the Horseman there is a particularly nasty Hessian mercenary in employ of the British), written a generation after the Revolutionary War, is spun to new heights of American Exceptionalism in this rendition, drawing in General George Washington as both wise sage and religious prophet. No mention though of how he ordered troops to ensure the escaped slaves hunkering in NY with the British during the war did not escape and were returned to their owners. Funny that. As fate would have it, turns out the Revolution wasn’t just fought for freedom and liberty of propertied white males, but to stop nothing less than the ensuing Apocalypse. Well, naturally.
Still, the show knows how to keep you riveted, offing some characters all GRMM style and not wasting too much time before lopping off more heads! We get to see a priest go all Gandalf with the Jesus wizardry. And did I mention the Headless Horseman can handle the hell out of a machine gun? On a horse!
In the end, despite some flaws, FOX looks to have a decent series on its hands that’ll be sure to draw a crowd…provided it can keep up the suspense and continue delivering the goods. We’ll see.