True story: The other night I was sitting around thinking to myself, “Gee, I can’t wait for new fall television to start, if only I knew what to watch? I mean, that Drunk History show is pretty hilarious and I still keep up with Supernatural—why can’t someone combine these two random programs that I’m in no way correlating for dramatic effect? I’d sure love to merge my unprecedented love of fiendish ghouls and flamboyant historical storytelling in a fresh, exciting way.”
Or, that never actually happened, and I’m only exaggerating to ease the shame I feel for adding Fox’s Sleepy Hollow to my TiVo Season Pass queue. I’m a masochist for potentially cancelled TV shows, what can I say.
Only one episode in and already things are off to a delightfully trainwreck-y start. How do you modernize a classic literary villain like the headless horseman? Drop the axe and replace it with firearms and a shotgun-shell bandolier. Welcome to 2013: You can take his rifle when you pry it from his cold, (actual) dead fingers.
Spearheaded by Fringe’s Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and so-very-loosely based on Washington Irving’s classic spook-tale, Sleepy Hollow opens in 1781 amidst a Revolutionary War battle in the Hudson Valley. Armed with a musket and towering cheekbones, soldier Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) faces off against a ruthless, horse-riding mercenary who seems impervious to bullets. Grievously wounded, Ichabod manages to lop off the horseman’s head before succumbing to his injuries. Inexplicably, he later awakens to find himself buried under several feet of mud and ice. Digging himself out of the muck, he staggers his way through the woods and onto a modern day roadway, where he’s almost run down by a semi-truck and a Kia product placement car. Startled, he runs toward the present day Village of Sleepy Hollow.
Nearby, law enforcement officer Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) and her boss are called to investigate a disturbance at a local stable, only to inadvertently stumble across the resurrected horseman. After murdering the sheriff, the horseman rides off, leaving Abbie to fumble with her radio and scream, “Officer down!” as if there’s still a chance for him. That’s not officer down, lady, that’s officer decapitated.
Back at police headquarters, Abbie meets an incarcerated Ichabod, who was arrested earlier that evening for frantically jaywalking (he’s also blamed for the “officer down” situation, even though he was taken into custody nowhere near the stables). After his interrogation, Abbie asks to personally transport him to the local mental institution. Somehow this is allowed—because the five-foot-nothing woman should really be carting the potentially dangerous crazy man alone—and she doesn’t even lock him in the back seat. Save for the handcuffs, Ichabod’s riding shotgun like they’re going to brunch. Impractical story points aside, this allows them time to bond over their situation and give the audience its first taste of the all-important camaraderie to come.
Sleepy Hollow is an average pilot, gun-toting horseman aside, but one that’s bettered by its two sprightly leads. Both are able to balance the show’s inherent weirdness with the right amount of patented television realism—that special, muted reaction to things in a televised world where no one seems to notice that their lives get inexplicably crappy around November and May sweeps.
Beharie’s Abbie is a confident if slightly damaged foil to Mison’s melancholic Crane, who also acts the part of incredulous time traveler with consummate ease. Even a trite why-is-Starbucks-on-every-corner gag is rendered funny with his staid delivery. “Is it a law?” he asks, dubiously. I like these two—partners who dig graves together stay together. (This episode doesn’t really establish what everyone is going to call Ichabod on a regular basis, but let’s hope they go with his surname, as his first name sounds like a sewage-inspired men’s fragrance line. I want your Icha-Bod.)
The first episode is so focused on pushing toward the next mystery that it breezes past the central character's unique situation in favor of setting up an overwhelming amount of future mythology. A man awakens to find himself transported hundreds of years in the future—that’s a good starting point to dip your toe into the genre waters.
Instead, Sleepy Hollow sucks us down into a murky riptide of End Times prophesies, National Treasure-level conspiracies, and enough secret iconography to make Dan Brown foam at the mouth. There’s a magical eagle that keeps leading Ichabod around, possibly sent from his “dead” wife who’s trapped in some sort of paranormal purgatory. Also, by the way, she’s a witch—but a good witch fighting bad witches. And the headless horseman? Actually a (headless) horseman of the biblical Apocalypse, under the command of a big naked devil-demon who speaks in his own demonic tongue and can only walk in jump cuts, apparently. Got all that? No? Doesn’t matter.
Before the episode is finished, it manages to cram in a full-blown series mission statement that will undoubtedly be referenced in every recap to come. Quoting a passage out of George Washington’s Bible (really?), Ichabod claims that he and Abbie are destined to endure a “seven year period of tribulation” in order to “defend humanity from the forces of hell.” That is sure a lot of confidence for a show that doesn’t even know whether it’s going to pick up its back nine episodes yet.
So, the end is nigh and a little convoluted. After such an exposition dump, it certainly has a lot of story to parse, but as long as Sleepy Hollow doesn’t hand the horseman a bazooka in next week’s episode, it might be worth seeing where this crazy train ends up.