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How I Lost My Head for Sleepy Hollow

Fox's apocalyptic drama is (American) Revolutionary, trading the dark paranoia of The X-Files for a celebration of belief and wonders.

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When I first reviewed Sleepy Hollow, Fox’s supernatural drama about a revived Ichabod Crane and a modern-day suburban cop trying to stave off the Apocalypse, I enjoyed the crazy pilot but wasn’t yet sure if it was “good, ridiculous, good but ridiculous, or good because it’s ridiculous.”

We’re two months into the season, and I’m ready to render a verdict: it’s ridiculously good. But I don’t want to give you the wrong impression: this is not just a case in which the premise and storyline of the show is so insanely out-there–though it is, oh Lord it is–that you just have to suspend intellectual judgment and enjoy it. It has also become an entertainment that’s simply good by the regular old good-TV standards of character, performance, and emotion.

Tonight’s Sleepy Hollow episode, “Necromancer,” is a humdinger in terms of expanding the show’s mythology: without giving anything away, Ichabod (Tom Mison) gets answers from the captured headless horseman (who we already know is Death, one of the biblical horsemen of Revelation). If you’ve managed not to try the show yet, it’s as good a place as any to close your eyes, take a jump, and land bareback on the runaway stallion of its plot.

But if Sleepy Hollow were only crazy plot and Biblical/Revolutionary mashups, it probably would have exhausted itself a few episodes in. What’s made it special has been the pairing of Ichabod with policewoman Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), an initial skeptic who has learned that she, like Ichabod, is a central player in the coming supernatural Armageddon.

Increasingly, the most entertaining moments in the show are those in which Abbie and Ichie are not doing much of anything but talking: she introducing him to the concepts of paying for bottled water or watching modern baseball, or the cranky Ichabod reminding her what a sacrifice he has made to join her in the present. (“Flummoxed by a foreign concept that resembles close to nothing of what you know? Imagine how that feels!”) He’s 18th-century, she’s modern, he’s male, she’s female–but they’re joined by their fate as “Witnesses” in the apocalyptic battle and a feeling of being outsiders, marked by insights and burdens few other people can understand.

Also, he’s white and she’s black, and Sleepy Hollow–like its freshman Fox counterpart Brooklyn Nine-Nine–has managed to be organically diverse in a way that’s both casual and significant. Abbie’s boss, the allusively named Capt. Irving (Orlando Jones) is also African American, and her sister also plays a role in the show; Crane, meanwhile saw tensions over slavery and nascent abolitionism growing firsthand. In last week’s episode, killing time during a plan to trap the Horseman using fake skulls to substitute for his real enchanted one–as one does–the talk turned to Thomas Jefferson, who Ichabod learns only now had children by his slave Sally Hemings.

Meanwhile, Sleepy Hollow is also something different in the supernatural-mythology genre. Its monstery lineage is easy to trace: it owes a lot to Fringe–from its creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci–which in turn owed a lot to The X-Files. But it’s not steeped in paranoia and cynicism the way many of its predecessors have been. Ichabod isn’t paired with a skeptic–a la Mulder and Scully–but a fellow believer. And it doesn’t track in the same dark view of history that The X-Files did. The X-Files presented a hidden history of treachery and lies–alien visitations hidden from us, the powers that be exploiting the truth for their advantage.

Whereas Sleepy Hollow recasts the past as a time of hidden wonders. Yes, there are secrets that we never knew–the whole possible-end-of-times thing. But in its view, the American revolution was not darker but more grand than we imagined, a battle not just for freedom but for the souls of mankind. Its Founding Fathers, while flawed (see Sally Hemings), are not exposed as shadowy conspirators but awesome superman. George Washington guarded a magical Bible! Paul Revere didn’t just warn of a British attack, he hid a magical cipher on the teeth of a skull! Thomas Jefferson designed not just Monticello, but a supernatural, spell-guarded fortress for the Freemasons!

This show, in other words, is not one more twisty masterpiece of suspicion, but a celebration of belief. It’s an ingeniously loopy concept, but that in itself would only get it so far. What makes it worth the ride is that what it lacks in a head, it makes up for in heart.

9 comments
candi
candi

You writers should flagellate one another if you screw this up. I can't remember the last time I was this excited about watching television. It's clever, witty, historical, current, fantastical, and grounded at the same time.  I hope you have story plots already in the bag; if not MUSH!!

MK922
MK922

You hit on something I really only noticed last night....this may be the most authentically representative TV show cast on the air right now.  THREE African American leads - and you don't really notice that - plus a recurring guest Asian lead.  As has been well written about the show elsewhere, SH is also shrewd social commentary packaged in supernatural/revolutionary revisionist history and it really is fun to hear some of the sociological concepts we face today discussed with humor and an astounding amount of insight by some truly engaging actors.  Long may it ride!

Cwolff
Cwolff

Nice review, but seems like "the heart", the shameless goofiness, the byzantine plot fraught with magic objects and codes, and especially the impending Apocalypse should recall the CW's "Supernatural" more than "The X-Files" (to which "Supernatural" has, however, often given a nod). I'm not seeing "Fringe" at all. "The X-Files" and "Fringe" play the drama straighter. "Sleepy Hollow" and "Supernatural" have the strategy of lulling your brain with lore and comic verve while luring you in to care about the characters. Glad they seem to be bringing Jenny in! She's much more interesting than Katrina.

reneetgirton
reneetgirton

Tom Mison is definitely great but Nicole Beharie and Orlando Jones are the anchors to Sleepy Hollow. Considering Orlando Jones is playing a straight dramatic role and is really the audience's way into the world of Sleepy Hollow, I'd have to say a healthy amount of the credit for it's success has to got go him. He live tweets every episode and has been credited in just about every article as a one of the many reasons why the show was picked up after only 2 episodes aired. He's also by far the most recognizable face on the show. I literally think Fox had him do all the press for Sleepy Hollow. He is such a funny guy in real life and has truly become a GREAT dramatic actor. 

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

I mentioned somewhere - here? or on Hitflix? - that I was just as impressed with Nicole Beharie's ability to say the line, "Lieutenant Abbie Mills, Sleepy Hollow Police Department" as I was with Christine Baranski's ability to say "ChumHum" without giggling.  And then, lo and behold, just now when I googled "Lieutenant Abbie Mills" to make sure I didn't misspell "Beharie," I discover that there really is a Sleepy Hollow Police Department. And that it has an African-American woman on the force, although apparently she hasn't made lieutenant yet.  And frankly, I'm so blown away by discovering a website called The Mary Sue, that is so not, that I can't remember what else I was going to say about the show. Except that I like it. Dracula, on the other hand ... well, nevermind.

http://www.themarysue.com/sleepy-hollow-female-police-officer/

geoff.clarke
geoff.clarke

I thought last week's episode was a real step forward in finding their voice - the Sally Hemings conversation you allude to was the best sign of that. Like Fringe, it took a little time to get going but it is a lot of fun. Now if they could just bring Clancy Brown back...

DeeRien
DeeRien

This show is completely bananas, and I love every minute of it. Already dreading the end of the 13-episode season, though I applaud FOX for not giving in to the no-doubt strong temptation to do the normal 22 episodes.

Humberto
Humberto

American supernatural drama television series.
English actor Tom Mison performs as Ichabod Crane (Character) - wonderfully done!  

I hope FOX keeps this show on the air.

believeinmagic
believeinmagic

The series rests on Tom Mison's ability to sell a ridiculous character. If Mison wasn't such a brilliant actor and hadn't had such a great grasp of what the role required I'm not sure how well the show would have done. The series rests on the audience accepting this preposterous character and Mison's performance really sold it. Its an incredibly well crafted performance and never falls into self parody. Very hard if you consider someof the insane lines he has to deliver.