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Review: Sleepy Hollow pilot

Fox debuted its Sleepy Hollow, a strange mashup of “Rip van Winkle,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” an assortment of Biblical myths, and made up apocrypha, this week. The show appears to be capitalising on the unexpected success of Grimm, which balances camp with supernatural mysteries, a light touch of humour, and just enough creepiness to give fans the willies on occasion. Sleepy Hollow, however, looks to be darker, a horror show that intends to take itself more seriously and press home the point: though there is comic relief (as when two police officers are stumped by the Headless Horseman when they tell him to drop his weapon and put his hands on his…uh…), this is a show that’s meant to spook.

There are a number of things to pick apart with the pilot, starting with everything that was thrown at us. We were introduced to a hodge-podge of characters, most of whom we fortunately didn’t need to care about because they died almost immediately. (The Reverend had barely any lines before he was offed by the Headless Horseman, for example.) Viewers were also treated to a lot of very complex mythology, perhaps more than was advisable for a pilot, where the goal is usually to make people want to tune in to find out more, not leave viewers reeling with informational overload.

On Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane has woken up 250 years after the Revolutionary War after beheading a Redcoat on a white horse who was spectacularly hard to kill. But, viewers find out, that’s because he was Death! At least, so said General Washington, who conveniently happened to be there for a cameo appearance. Oh, and Ichabod’s wife was a witch, part of “an ancient order sworn to protect Sleepy Hollow.” Oh, and the apocalypse is coming unless Ichabod can stop it, which means he’ll be spending a lot of time with his nose in a Bible for guidance…but he’ll have a fetching police officer (sheriff’s deputy? her exact position as of the pilot is unclear) at his side. And she’s bringing the records of her now-deceased partner, the ex-sheriff, who firmly believed something supernatural was going on in Sleepy Hollow. Oh, and there are evil witches in town! And across the Eastern Seaboard! And, oh, wait, there’s more!

At least, that was what the pilot felt like. Every time it established a mythology, it added on another twist. Which isn’t necessarily a bad storytelling technique, it’s just not necessarily the best technique for a single episode of television. Rushing everything all at once means there’s no time to linger on these reveals, let alone allow them to come more naturally. Instead, everything was crammed down the throats of both characters and viewers alike, and it was quite an adjustment period. (Especially for poor Ichabod, who’d spent the last 250 years in a cave. One would think the man at least deserves a day to learn how to use a smartphone.)

It’s unclear if the writers wanted to establish a rich base to work from and build upon in the hopes of extending the series—already, we have Ichabod discussing the fact that he and his partner are fated to work together in a seven-year partnership to save the world (so sayeth the Bible and thus prayeth the production team)—or if they wanted to get it all out there in the hopes of avoiding cancellation. We shall see if the strategy worked in coming weeks; while the show now doesn’t need to spend a great deal of time worldbuilding because it’s got the basics down, it also doesn’t have much worldbuilding to expand and work with now that it’s laid everything out so clearly. There’s little room for error when you put it all out on the first go.

One can only hope that the writers have mysteries up their sleeves, because chasing the Headless Horseman around is going to get extremely old, extremely fast, even with his head in a jar to wave around periodically. If they’re going to run with the apocalypse theme, perhaps more horsemen (horsepeople?) will be joining him.

One thing I must give the show props on is the diversity of its casting. While Crane (Tom Mison) is played by a white man, his partner Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) is a Black woman, and one who very much holds her ground on the show. Of course, her gender and race created the perfect opportunity to crack some obligatory jokes about social progress, etc etc, but the core point stands: Abbie is a woman who has seen some things in her lifetime, and she takes no nonsense from Crane or anyone else, even as she’s been labeled crazy and unreliable for her own run-in with the supernatural in her youth. Meanwhile, her supervisor Captain Frank Irving (nice subtle nod to Washington Irving there) is played by Orlando Jones, another talented Black actor—and the other police officer we met in detail in the pilot was played by John Cho, who was unfortunately offed by a mysterious demon. Astoundingly, the nonwhite actor didn’t die first. That honour went to the previous Sheriff, played by Clancy Brown.

There are some subtle interplays of race, gender, and power here, then, and I do hope that they continue, because they make a great commentary on the original story, on police shows, and on Hollywood casting in general. Casting a Black and white lead together on a major drama is not very common, and of course it comes with its own problems (why do we so rarely see Black men paired with white women, for example?), but it defies the whiteness of US TV.

Since this is going to be a show with a high body count, evidently, it remains to be seen whether the writers and producers will keep it racially balanced both in terms of who the Horseman offs, and who replaces fallen characters. If they do, it will make Sleepy Hollow stand out in a racially-charged environment.

That means the show has to stay on the air, though. The pilot received over 10 million viewers, which isn’t terrible, but isn’t terribly impressive, especially considering that new shows often experience a ratings tumble after the pilot.

What will you have for us next week, Sleepy Hollow?

Photo by rubber bullets, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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s.e. smith

s.e. smith is the Editor in Chief at Global Comment, with publication credits including Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Rewire.