So you’re at this party. You’ve been here for a while; too long, really. You’re not ready to go home yet, but you feel like you’ve seen the sights. You’ve been around the room a few times, you know what to expect, and you know all the warning signs. You notice someone coming over, and your first thought is, “Oh, this is going to be terrible.” Because there are some people you just look at, and you know they’ve got all the wrong ideas. They’re trying too hard, they have a history of over-thinking, they lack depth. This person who’s walking over to you, this someone that you’re not all that eager to meet, you’ve heard them talking earlier to other people, just a few sentences here and there, and boy howdy. Just really not confidence inducing stuff coming out of that mouth, although, okay, let’s be shallow for a moment because we’ve been here too long to lie to ourselves, it’s a good mouth. Good face, good visuals, although a little over the top. Like, that hair is, um, let’s just let it pass, maybe pretend we’re in a music video for a Meat Loaf song. Because the thing is, this someone who is speaking to you right now, they’re still ridiculous, but they’re also actually kind of charming. Really charming, even. And funny! And not in an “I’ll pretend I’m laughing with you” kind of way, at least not mostly. The someone is enthusiastic, but they have perspective, and they’re disarmingly straightforward about their particular brand of crazy. Ten minutes in, the someone starts talking about what might possibly be a cult, but it doesn’t matter; you’re hooked. This is probably going to end badly, and you are going to be there when it does.
This is about as close as I can get to describing my experience watching the Sleepy Hollow pilot. I went in fully expecting to laugh my ass off; I’ve been making fun of the trailer since it first hit the Internet. (“The answers are in Washington’s Bible!” sounded like a perfect storm of stupid to me. It still kind of does.) But while I did laugh, and I didn’t always laugh where I was supposed to laugh, the pilot caught my completely off-guard by being kind of, mostly, sort of, almost… good? There are huge caveats, no question, and I’m going to try to get to as many as I can in this review, but before we start tearing this apart, even as we move forward with the near certainty that this show will completely fall apart in five episodes at the absolute latest, I have to admit: This was fun. And not in a “This actually aired on television?”, THE CAPE kind of way. Sleepy Hollow’s first episode is over-stuffed, regularly ridiculous, and operates on an internal value only the charitable could call “logic,” but it basically works. It has promise. And if the people involved can find some way to keep all the plates spinning, it might even turn out to be more than a curiosity.
Still, there are some critical flaws baked in from the start, the most obvious being a loopy mythology that tries to cram about five seasons of Supernatural into forty minutes. To sum up: Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), a college professor turned soldier turned spy was tasked by General George Washington with killing a very nasty man who just might be the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Crane succeeds in cutting off the guy’s head, but his wife Katrina (Katia Winter), who is a witch, is forced to bind their souls together in a desperate attempt to save Crane’s life, so that when the Headless Horseman is resurrected in modern day Sleepy Hollow, Crane is brought back as well. When the Horseman murders Clancy Brown (who has a character name, but c’mon), Crane is arrested in connection with the crime. Abby (Nicole Beharie), who was Clancy’s mentee, and a cop getting ready to leave town for Quantico, gets drawn into the mystery, she and Crane team up, and she finds out that her former boss/father figure had a secret life that involved a lot of research into unsolved, and potentially occult-based, crimes. Oh, and Abby once saw something in a forest with her sister that might be (is) directly connected to everything else.
Where to start? The use of Washington Irving’s original novella is about as cosmetic as it gets, which isn’t really a negative so much as it is weird. (On the plus side, there’s no indication in the pilot that Irving’s story even exists in this world, so we’re spared any “You need to know the real truth!”) Using the Four Horsemen as villains right out of the gate smacks of cliché, and the backstory already comes across as overwrought to the point of hilarity. The two big stabs at characterization for Abby don’t have any weight at all to them; the mentions of her leaving for Quantico seem to indicate writers desperate to create as much arc as they can in-between beheadings and sorcery and shoot-outs (it’s like something you might add if you’ve read too many screenwriting books), and her trauma over seeing some trees as a child never registers as anything but a plot device. Worst of all, the premise, the “Ichabod Crane is resurrected to join forces with a modern cop in order to stave off the end of the world” is so fundamentally loopy that it’s hard to shake the impression that all the good in the pilot is just dancing on top of a burning house; the moves are great, but sooner or later there’s not going to be any place left to stand.
And yet there is good here. The two leads are well cast: Mison takes a bizarre figure and manages to invest him with a surprising amount of humor, indignation, and legitimate pathos, while Beharie, who’s basically in the Scully role, humanizes a potentially bland hero-type. And they’re fun to watch together. It’s easy to accept the ludicrous plot machinations required to partner them up because the episode is just more entertaining with them sniping at each other. It’s a familiar dynamic—mild sarcasm that ultimately masks mutual respect and a shared determination to fight an unimaginable evil. But it’s effective, partly because of the actors and their chemistry, and partly because the writers are smart enough to know just how serious to take all of this. It sounds odd to say about an episode that climaxes with the Headless Horseman firing a machine gun, but there is a surprising amount of restraint in the script. Multiple people die (Brown, guest star John Cho, that priest who was a witch or something), but the fish-out-of-water jokes aren’t overused. Crane is unnerved by the present, but he mostly just rolls with it, even throwing out a decent Starbucks joke. He asks if Abby was “emancipated” and comments on her wearing pants, but none of these bits are over-stressed. They need to be addressed, but they’re not really what we’re interested in, so they’re dealt with, and then the story moves on.
In a way, this detracts from the reality of the character—anyone who actually came back to life over two centuries after they’d originally lived would probably spend a lot of time fainting and going completely insane. But really, “reality” isn’t the point here. This isn’t a serious drama, or even a serious genre show. This is goofy cartoon funland, and at its best, it’s fast, nutty, good-natured, and charming. The tone is, for the most part “straight-faced but not grim,” and that’s basically ideal; no one is trying to create self-parody, even if the premise seems ideally suited for it. And while the odds are against it, there is a possibility that all these lunatic elements could cohere into something that is consistently watchable and even dependably good. There need to be some substantial changes for it to reach “great,” but for right now, the ride is enjoyable enough that it’s easy not to worry what happens next.
The biggest warning sign is how much that ride depends on speed. A lot happens in the pilot, probably more than really should have happened—Brown’s appearance and departure are so fast that it almost, but not quite, plays like a joke. But that breathlessness is what makes the mythology easier to swallow. You don’t really stop and wonder why Abby is so determined to work with Crane, or why she isn’t in more trouble when she breaks him out of the asylum, or why her boss (Orlando Jones) seems to have decided that she and Crane are teamed up at the end, using roughly the same logic that got Arnold Schwarzenegger working with a 10 year-old in The Last Action Hero. There isn’t time to wonder. But it’s questionable the show will be able to maintain that speed for long. Abby’s investigation into her dead friend’s records suggests a direction for future episodes, as she and Crane will most likely go around killing demons in between the season-long hunt for the Horseman. That could work. And the episode’s final scene, with the death of poor John Cho and a legitimately frightening monster, suggests the show is capable of scares when it needs them. It really is like meeting someone new. We’ll probably regret it. But maybe—maybe—we won’t.
- Len Wiseman directed the pilot, which is weird because it isn’t blue/gray all the time. (Also, it’s well-directed. The reveal of Clancy’s headless corpse was nicely done.)
- Some of the music cues sound an awful lot like Danny Elfman’s Sleepy Hollow film score.
- “Excellent. This day continues to bear gifts.” Mison’s aggrieved, peevish line-readings are great.
- Whatever happens, at least we’ll always have “The answers are in Washington’s Bible!”