There are three things you need to know about FOX’s new series, Sleepy Hollow.
First, it’s NOT what Washington Irving had in mind when he penned “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in the early 1800’s, and it bears about as much resemblance to the original short story as Tim Burton’s 1999 adaptation, the classic Disney cartoon or most all of the couple dozen film, television and stage versions, which not much at all, and since it’s set in today’s world, even less than most.
Consider the main character of both stories, one Ichabod Crane. In Irving’s original tale, he is a gangly schoolmaster, filled with superstition and cowardice, chasing after the hand of a young woman named Katrina in the hope of inheriting her father’s fortune. Here, as played by Tom Mison, Ichabod is a British professor who joined the Colonials in their rebellion against Great Britain, and became a soldier and a spy working for George Washington. Slight difference there. He’s also happily married to Katrina, but his most important relationship, as it were, is with the mysterious Hessian soldier whose head will become detached and be the antagonist of both versions of the tale.
In the story, The Hessian is a nameless soldier, fighting for the British, whose head is blown off by a cannonball, and whose spirit haunts the Hollow. His legend is used by Crane’s rival for Katrina’s affections to run the cowardly schoolteacher out of town, whereas here, Crane is given the mission of killing the Hessian by Washington himself, which he does. Well, sort of. He shoots him, but the Hessian doesn’t cooperate by dying, so Crane chops his head off, while his opponent deals him a mortal blow. Again, slight difference between the two.
Then our story leaps forward to the modern-day, where Crane awakes from a centuries long sleep, a la Rip Van Winkle (curiously, also a character created by Washington Irving), where he finds that the Headless Horseman has also returned, only now, the Hessian had traded fighting for the Crown for leading the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse. Which leads us to the second thing you need to know about Sleepy Hollow, if you haven’t figured it out by now…
It’s delightfully nuts.
All of the above is wild enough, but add in two warring groups of witches, one Good, one Evil, and the revelation that Crane’s wife Katrina is a secret member of the Good Witches, and is responsible for Crane’s long sleep and resurrection, the Headless Horseman using a machine gun and a file cabinet full of unsolved murders stretching back to Crane’s time, and it’s definitely a show that is letting you know there isn’t going to be anything ordinary happening here. That the return of both Crane and the Horseman to the world is apparently the kickoff of the Apocalypse itself is just icing on the crazy cake, although the implication that the plan for the show to run for the Seven Years of the Tribulation might be a little optimistic, given the state of network television and the survival rate of genre shows. But if the rest of the series is this entertaining, I think I could handle a seven-year run.
And it IS entertaining. The casting is great, with Mison giving us a charming fish-out-of-water Ichabod, even if his adaptation to the 21st Century is a little, ok, a lot unrealistic. Here it’s played for laughs in little ways, when you really think he should be freaking the hell out. Maybe we’ll see more of that as the series progresses, but for now, he’s awfully calm in the face of a world full of what in his time would have labelled sorcery. Still, his reactions such as they are, are a lot of fun, ranging from indignation at being placed in a polygraph, fascination with electric car windows, and most interestingly, his interactions with Nicole Beharie’s Lt. Abbie Mills, of which I’ll discuss more of in a moment. Throw in the spirit of his witch wife speaking to him in dreams and his drive to defeat the Horseman once and for all, and this flavor of Ichabod Crane is a lot of fun to watch.
Since this is a procedural of sorts, in that X-Files kind of way, and since one can’t have a 18th Century transplant that the police think is an escaped mental patient just wandering around, Crane has to have a partner, right? Nicole Beharie plays Abbie Mills, Lieutenant to Clancy Brown’s Sheriff of Sleepy Hollow, and on her way to the FBI’s Quantico, before the arrival of Crane and the Headless Horseman disrupts her plans. Mills is no stranger to the supernatural, having had an encounter with a demonic figure years ago, alongside her sister. When the Horseman kills the Sheriff and she is drawn into the mystery Crane represents, Abby is the only person willing to hear this seemingly crazy man out, and her own investigations lead her to discover that the Sheriff had been looking into the mysterious and deadly history of Sleepy Hollow for years. Defying the orders of her superiors, Abby brings Crane into the investigation of the sudden spate of beheadings in town, and chooses to stay and fight the Horseman beside him.
Beharie’s chemistry with Mison is really quite lovely, and she gives us a strong-willed and extremely capable character in Abby. The best moments, in what are really no bad moments in her performance, are when she has a quite funny and interesting confrontation with Crane about being a black woman in law enforcement. Where a series with all modern characters might look at the dynamics of being a woman in that context, or being a black woman, Crane has an even more archaic worldview. In his time, women weren’t in that kind of position of course, let alone someone who would have been a slave. His protestations of being opposed to slavery leads to this fun exchange:
Crane: “You’ve been emancipated I take it?”
Abby: “Excuse me?”
Crane: “From enslavement.”
Abby: “Ok, I’ll play along here. I am a black female lieutenant for the Westchester Police County Police Department. Do you see this gun? I am authorized to use it. On you.”
Crane: “If you are insinuating that I endorse slavery, I am offended.”
Abby: “Wait, back up. You’re offended?”
And there’s more of that. It’s a great start to a very interesting relationship, one that will certainly be at the heart of the show, and, pleasantly, not one that seems, at least for now, to be a romantic one, what with Crane’s wife seemingly ghosting about. For all the wild spooky goings on that are sure to come in the following weeks, if this relationship between Crane and Abby didn’t work, it wouldn’t matter… but it does, extremely well.
The rest of the cast is also quite good, with the lion’ share of screen time going to Orlando Jones’ Captain Irving, which surely is an intentional nod to the original author, and John Cho’s Andy Dunn, who is keeping some secrets of his own. It’s also directed by Len Wiseman, who brought us the Underworld films, and it shows. This is a very cinematic show, from the opening battle scenes, to the atmospheric eeriness of Crane’s cave, to the weird and wonderful sight of the Headless Horseman facing off against the police, machine gun blazing away. It will be interesting to see if they can keep this great visual texture going forward, because it really works.
And then there is the team behind the series. When we heard who was bringing this show to FOX, there was something of a mixed feeling thing going on, I admit. The recent film scripts of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci have been… controversial among genre fans to say the least. But if the new Star Trek films and the Transformers films leave you cold, remember that these two also brought us Alias, Zena and Fringe. Where they may seem to take the path of least resistance in their film scripts, their TV series work has been pretty consistently excellent, and if they are treating Sleepy Hollow with the same care, well, that would only be a good thing.
Oh yes, the third thing you need to know. Clancy Brown is only in a few minutes of this episode, which is a terrible shame… one can never have too much Clancy Brown. That guy is seriously awesome.