Some thoughts on the Sleepy Hollow pilot

Well, that wasn’t boring, I’ll give you that. In the words of the great American philosopher, Kanye West,

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When I tuned in last night to watch the pilot for FOX’s new show, Sleepy Hollow, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. The show was barely on my radar and I had given it the most tacit of commitments for my fall viewing schedule. But after 7+ hours of football on Sunday and sitting through countless promos for the show, I decided to the drama a shot. There wasn’t much else on to watch – the Yankees had an off day and I didn’t feel like suffering through the season finale of Under the Dome – and I do like to sample new programs when I have the time. I like to think of these first few weeks of the new season as the add/drop period for classes in college; you go out there and sample a bunch of stuff and then decide what you want to spend a semester with. The staggering of premiere dates makes that possible.

Going into Sleepy Hollow without knowing much about the premise meant that I was ill prepared for how coo coo bananas the show turned out to be. They crammed an awful lot into that first hour of television: time travel, the apocalypse, witches, mysterious skulls, demons, buddy cop tropes and of course a headless horseman. It honestly was a lot to process as the show immediately laid out its premise and asked you to buy into its mythology. To its credit, it managed to lay out all this lunacy with mostly a straight face, but also without taking itself too seriously. The show tiptoed to the edge of campiness, but never quite crossed the line. The exposition heavy pilot may have stretched the limits of credibility, but it did so in complete confidence of the story that it was telling and with faith in the rules of the game that they were establishing. Sleepy Hollow may be crazy, but it is a show that has fully committed to how crazy it is.

I don’t know that I can even give the basic plot justice, but let’s give it a whirl: when the series opens, Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a British soldier who has switched his allegiance to the U.S. in the Revolutionary War. Crane is injured in a battle where he decapitates a mysterious horseman and wakes up to find himself in modern day America. After the unexplained murder of a local sheriff, Crane is brought in for questioning. No one believes any part of his story, except for local cop Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie). She, too, had seen a headless horseman at her partner’s murder, so Crane and Mills team up to try and make sense of all this. What follows is an intricate and complicated plot that involves the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse that may be tied into an experience from Mills’ childhood. Throw in some witches and the idea that George Washington (yup – the father of our country) may have been trying to save America from not only British tyranny but the end of the world and you can call it a day. In other words, this show doesn’t have a heck of a lot in common with the Washington Irving story.

The shows dedication to its insanity definitely prevents the whole thing from going off the rails in the first hour. In some ways, I see Sleepy Hollow as the cousin to FX’s American Horror Story; both shows tend to throw a little bit of everything at you so that by the time you piece it all together, you don’t really realize that none of this makes sense. American Horror Story is the much racier of the two – that show revels in pure shock value and pushing the limits of sex and nudity on a basic cable channel – but there is some similarity in what each show is trying to do. Both shows incorporate a lot of the supernatural into their storytelling and subscribe to the more is more theory of storytelling.

Mison and Beharie are good as the two leads and have an interesting chemistry together; Mison seems to have found the right balance for Crane to allow him to be funny as he wonders at all the changes in this strange new world, but also serious enough that he can impart major plot points without making them sound as ridiculous as they in fact are. He definitely has the flashier of the two roles, but Beharie instills a humanity into Abbie that I’m sure wasn’t written into the script. Beharie was wonderful in 42 as Jackie Robinson’s wife Rachel and is really capable of more than this show, but she certainly elevates the character of Abbie and makes her more interesting. John Cho and Orlando Jones also have supporting roles, though neither of their characters was really developed in the first episode. Katie Winter, who may be familiar to some viewers from her arc on Dexter last season as Nadia the stripper, also in on the show as Crane’s wife. She gets a surprising amount of screen time considering she is dead; she is one of the five people listed in the show’s credits. So I guess you can add ghosts or spirits into the mix as well.

Perhaps it is because I already watch American Horror Story that I wasn’t ready to be pulled into Sleepy Hollow; I already watch one show that is batsh&t crazy and AHS does it with such panache that anything on the networks is going to have a tough time competing. Though the pilot was fairly efficient in establishing a whole lot of context for the show, it still seemed like following all the plot points was going to be more work than it was worth. I liked the actors just fine, but the story was just way too over the top for my personal tastes. While the pilot managed to be fairly restrained, given all the weirdness it was establishing, I don’t know how long the show can sustain keeping everything in check. The potential of this show becoming tremendously bad is very high; despite all the smoke and mirrors of the insanity of the pilot, it wasn’t enough to fool me into thinking the show was actually good. Weird, definitely. But a show that I want to invest in week to week? Doubtful at best.

Some other observations:

  • I have to give the show some credit for being historical accurate; when Crane encounters Mills for the first time, he asks her if she is emancipated. For a guy waking up 200+ years in the future, Crane is a pretty progressive dude.
  • The show makes a joke about the omnipresence of Starbucks that isn’t necessarily a fresh joke, but I found funny in this context.
  • In one scene, the Headless Horseman has acquired himself an automatic rifle and has figured out how to use it. You can say a lot of things about the Horseman, but he’s no Luddite.
  • Tom Mison isn’t too hard on the eyes and Nicole Beharie is quite attractive as well, so the eye candy quotient on the show is pretty high.
  • I only live about 2 hours from the actual Sleepy Hollow and I’m curious if the show will spark any uptick in their tourism. This is the time to go – fall in the Hudson Valley is gorgeous.
  • I am a little disappointed that this Headless Horseman doesn’t bother with the jack o’lantern head. Sure, it wasn’t functional, but it added a little flair.
  • Sleepy Hollow isn’t a procedural, as I feared, so it has that going for it.
  • Seriously? We had to drag George Washington into all of this?

If I was grading this on sheer creativity and going for broke status, than Sleepy Hollow would get an A for effort. I’m sure that this will become a guilty pleasure show for a lot of people; it might be tuning in every week just to see what they will come up with next. The pilot certainly set the level for crazy at high, but I am sure that they have some other tricks up their sleeve. However, I don’t think that I’ll be one of those people. While I have a mild curiosity as to where this crazy train is going, but not enough to give it an hour of my time a week. The likelihood that they stick the landing on this is pretty low, in my opinion, and after getting sucked into the disaster that was The Following after a much more promising pilot, I’m shying away from anything that has a high potential for catastrophe. I wish the actors well and I respect the people behind the show for their dedication to this bonkers vision, but Sleepy Hollow simply wasn’t entertaining enough for me to continue to tune in. It was crazy, but not crazy enough to hold my interest or to make it a water cooler show where you have to watch just to discuss the strangeness of what is unfolding. Sleepy Hollow has its own particular voice, but it just isn’t one that I am choosing to listen to.

 

Sleepy Hollow airs at 9 pm ET on FOX.

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