Monday, April 13, 2015

Recommended: Sleepy Hollow, Season 1

Watching the first season of Sleepy Hollow is a magical experience: at one time, it’s so bat-sh-t insane that you can’t imagine how you’d do anything other than laugh derisively at whatever the showrunners put on-screen. At the same time, though, the interaction between the leads and the series’ audacity all manage to work so bloody well that you can’t sneer at or dismiss the result - nor can you peel your eyes away from it. What looked like a “so bad it’s gonna be good” hour became “so insane and appealing that I love it” viewing.

It's 2013 and - just outside the town of Sleepy Hollow, New York - Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is resurrected from a two-plus century slumber. This British man died fighting on the colonial side of the American Revolution, in a duel against a fierce masked warrior.

Now, he’s teamed with an African-American cop named Abigail Mills (Nicole Beharie), a hard-boiled do-gooder who’s in turmoil because the Headless Horseman (that same warrior) has just come back to life and killed her mentor/partner, Sheriff Corbin (Clancy Brown). Despite Ichabod’s future-shock and Abbie’s disbelief, these two learn that they are both tied to each other as well as to Corbin’s secret occult group that is dedicated to fighting the forces of evil that are now amassing... in Upstate New York (dun dun dun).

If all of that sounds likely to make for bad TV, or seems completely nonsensical, let me just tell you - yes, I also thought that at first. But George Washington’s bible plays an important role. Crane didn’t have a good relationship with Jefferson! And, hey, this is a series that not only presents a Golem invented by one of America’s Founding Fathers, but early in season 2 Abbie gets to incredulously refer to it as “Franklin-stein’s Monster.” F--K YES, we need more fun TV like this.

The tone (and purported aim) of the program is high quality horror-based crime procedural, one with a strong sense of humor as well as high stakes. Whether it’s being intentionally-campy or dead-serious, SH follows in the lofty footsteps of both Fringe and The X-Files in bringing a sense of dread and gruesomeness to primetime network viewing. And, like both of those prior Fox shows, its true centerpiece is the amazing chemistry between its two leads.

This series creates a pairing that easily belongs in the same discussion as Scully and Mulder, or Peter Bishop and Olivia Dunham – yet in an even crazier context. Mison’s Crane is a scholar, a principled man who fought for the Colonies when his wife made him see the justness of their cause. His charm, manners and good fashion sense make him one of the most pleasant and engaging fictional characters I’ve ever seen... And what could be stifling and irritating old-timey behavior is handled perfectly – Abbie proactively gives him a hard time about the disparities and social attitudes that helped make women powerless in the 18th Century. Not only does this unlikely pair develop a wonderful rapport, but it’s not long before Crane’s educated wit learns to embrace snark – and it’s an additional joy to watch him become outraged at modern aspects, like paying for bottled water.

Damn, maybe I love SH because I was a history geek ages ago, and Ichabod has such firm and fierce convictions on civic matters.

At the same time as the show is tackling some of the fictional realities in Ichabod’s adjustment to modern times, the series also indulges in a lot of entertaining fictitious impossibilities... like the fact that Crane’s wife not only turned him against the British Crown, she was - unbeknownst to him - a witch who was fighting a simultaneous magical war against demons bent on beginning the Apocalypse in America. I don’t know what kind of drugs I’d need to think up an idea like that, but I’d never take them – if only in part because they’d probably kill me.

Oh, yeah, and Katrina Crane (Katia Winter) also put her husband into his long slumber with a magical spell, and is currently contacting Crane and Mills from Purgatory, the same place that their main antagonist – a demon named Moloch – is residing. WT-Unholy-F

Abbie, meanwhile, is a perfect modern woman. She’s smart, motivated, confident, and loyal. She thinks problems through, which makes her a match for her sophisticated, antiquated companion... but she’s also the first to decide that guns need to be drawn and bad guys need to have their asses kicked. Best of all, Abbie is never relegated – because of her gender – to being the male lead’s love interest, or to serving as the “heart” of the team.

She’s independent, physically and emotionally strong in the wake of a troubled childhood, and goal-oriented in a way that her more philosophical counterpart seldom gets to be. Lt. Mills is cool and tough, but never hard-hearted or vindictive. In short, she’s the best, and the only problem with her character is that she doesn’t get even more screen time.

The special effects are quite fine, helping to create a suitably horrific and gripping set of stories over its 13-episode first season wherein Abbie and Ichabod face a series of supernatural terrors while trying to address the main arc: the forces of evil trying to start Armageddon in Upstate New York (I f--kin’ knew it), with the Headless Horseman – who it turns out is also the biblical Horseman of Death! – as the front-man for their demonic army.

Do you begin to understand how this show is so crazy that it’s beautiful, or am I failing in my job as a reviewer?

Tom Mison brings this great appeal to the part of Ichabod Crane. He has physical charisma and a fine bearing/manners – two attributes that account for at least 50% of my own success in life – along with the ability to neatly present, in turns, a man who is drawn to, appreciative of, and confounded by modernisms. You never don’t buy him as a soldier, as a scholar, or as a hunky gentleman who decided to turn against his homeland in order to fight for a good cause.

The crowning glory of the show is that this gimmicky character is matched so ably by Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills. The only thing that gives him a leg up here is that Mills doesn’t have much of a social life – at least, not one that we get to see on-screen in the wake of Corbin’s death - whereas Ichabod has an entire ongoing plot about getting his wife out of Purgatory. Though this means that one big part of Abbie’s life is dead whereas Crane gets extra time in which to address/expound upon his personal woes, there is nothing and no one that can make Beharie’s part anything other than what it is: focused, effective, sarcastic and yet not jaded. Lieutenant Mills (or “Leftenant” as Crane calls her) is a blessing.

The more problematic elements are seen in the supporting players. Orlando “7-Up” Jones has an often thankless job as Abbie’s boss. Without informing his role about the unearthly goings-on, it makes his Captain Frank Irving seem gullible/insane to partner one of his best officers with a guy who’s... an expert on Ye Olde Times. Sometimes it feels like the show doesn’t employ him enough to justify the time spent on his character, forget about making his considerate, open-minded attitude feel legitimate.

On a similar note, Jenny Mills is an exceptional figure – as Lt. Mill’s sister, she fills out Abbie’s life and provides her with someone to bounce off of that’s not Ichabod. Jenny is pretty, tough, and cool. Most of all, though, I love that she’s essentially Linda Hamilton’s character in T2 transposed onto a story with magic and monsters... But Jenny is used so rarely and randomly that she feels more like a recurring cameo player. There aren’t enough cool female roles on TV or in film, and even fewer that are minorities – so why can’t they do more with this actress?

And then we come to this program’s biggest flub: SH’s narrative function for Ichabod’s witchy wife falls apart horribly as the second season spins its wheels and displays a continued inability to know what to do with her. For a show that can do so well by female figures, I was somewhat offended by how things turned out in that regard. The first season uses her sparingly enough that it’s not an issue, but once she takes on a more prominent role... well, the writers have no conception of her beyond “she kicked off the Horseman-Crane feud, married our lead, then made him sleep for 200+ years, and Ichabod wants to rescue her.” It would have been less of a problem if Sleepy had simply forgotten that Katrina existed, or had her die off-screen.

Unfortunately, I fear that season two has assured that Sleepy Hollow may be remembered as, in essence, a one season wonder. Normally, I’d say that the increased episode order is the cause - plenty of creative teams can succeed with 13 episodes what they’d blunder over the course of 18... But this once-smooth machine just becomes clunky. One new character is added, and he feels as awkward and unwelcome as Homer Simpson’s Poochie did on The Itchy & Scratchy Show. There is little improvement for Jones’ Captain Irving. And Katrina, as I noted, is handled so badly that I’m amazed Fox didn’t mandate some Public Service Announcement about sloppy writing on primetime TV.

Worst of all, John Noble - who was so wonderful in Fringe - gets a role that... Well, I didn’t care about or for his part with any consistency, and almost every plot he was involved in was either half-baked or gradually grew annoying. This comes from someone who’s a fan of Mr. Noble’s work, yet even he can do no more than put a good performance to the rather repetitious and substandard material that he’s given.

Anyone who wants to see a horror show set in the present day would do well to watch the first season of Sleepy Hollow. It’s just glorious – a dark horse that exceeds all expectations and entertains when it seems like it should grate. Looking at the series, I feel appreciative of and happy for the inclusion of a figure like Abbie Mills, and her rapport with Ichabod Crane is (to use kiddie terms) super-awesome as well as an inspiring sign of what’s to come when TV producers embrace female characters and diverse partnerships that aren’t based on romance. The only question is whether the show can correct all of the horrible foibles made in the second season; it would be a shame to see a version of X-Files or Fringe where Fox Mulder or Olivia Dunham only got two seasons to shine...

If you take nothing else away from this entry: the initial run of Sleepy Hollow is “What if Mr. Darcy was less of a d--k, and had a Rip Van Winkle experience that leads to him becoming Abraham Van Helsing thrown out of time.” I loved watching it, especially since the person that’s probably my blogging soul mate, lady t, reviews every episode... And, until season two came along to screw up so much of what made this series work, my only response was “oh my god this is amazing, I can’t believe it’s not horrible” – which can be abbreviated as “F—K YES.”


  1. Blogging soul mate, reporting for duty:) I freely admit that S2 was a bit of a mess but still have hope for a third season of SH to do well.

    I think that once the writers decided on how to pull the characters out of the corner that the villains of the piece had painted them in(Moloch and Henry, who was awesome), they were scrambling to patch up the rips in the story line quilt at a fast and furious pace. For one, having Katrina become the bad guy was rather rushed and a little more character development might have made that come off much better than it did.

    However, we did get the pleasure of seeing Abbie take a time through time herself and that made up for a lot of the hastiness for me, at least. I sincerely hope that we get more of Jenny next time, as her character is great and the hints dropped this time around about her possibly having magical abilities would do more than simply replace Katrina's mojo skills, it would up the stakes on the battle against those apocalyptic forces out there.

    I watch this show with my mom(even got her an official SH T-shirt for Christmas) and this series is a good way to bring together viewers of different generations, especially ones who enjoy a little whimsey with their sci-fi/fantasy action.

    1. I do have some hopes that they might turn it around. I'm sad that they hired a new showrunner, but the dip in quality was noticeable. A program like this one requires a very fine balance to work well, and that balance was clearly off.

      It's just a shame that you had one underutilized actress, and that so many of the secondary roles were less enjoyable as they got more screen time. Hell, the Headless Horseman was not an entertaining presence in Season 2, and I assumed that day would never come. All we were left with was the incorruptible glory of Ichabod and Abbie.

      This sounds like fun viewing with a parent that doesn't mind horror! Kudos to you for introducing her to it, and giving her a cool present.

  2. Oops, meant "trip through time"-darn my haste!


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