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TV Tonight: Sleepy Hollow

The straight-up-bonkers pilot of this new series script-doctors Washington Irving for today's steroid era of supernatural storytelling.

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Kent Smith/FOX

Nineteenth-century American short-story writer Washington Irving spun tales about a headless horseman who terrorized the living and a man who fell asleep for 20 years and awoke to a changed world. Irving did OK for himself, but he could never have cut it in today’s entertainment world. A guy sleeps for a long time? One headless horseman? Who got this amateur a pitch meeting? Where are the twists?

So the straight-up-bonkers pilot of Sleepy Hollow (Mondays on Fox) script-doctors Irving for today’s steroid era of supernatural storytelling. It essentially mashes up the stories of Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, but adds a couple hundred years, witch covens, demons, conspiracies, an occult battle to save the human race, a preserved head in a jar, George Washington‘s magic Bible, and at least one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Because, you know, gotta keep things interesting!

We meet Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) amidst a Revolutionary War battle, in which he falls while trying to kill a Redcoat who survives both shooting and decapitation. After awakening in an underground cave in 2013 Sleepy Hollow, a disoriented and rather crabby Ichabod is brought in by local detective Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie). The authorities judge Crane insane in the membrane; but before Abbie can bring him to a psych facility, a bigger problem comes up: someone is decapitating citizens, and that someone turns out to be himself headless. (Note to producers looking to rein in cast salaries: use as many headless characters as possible.)

There’s more, of course, much more: creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci introduced a mythology gradually on Fringe, but they pull up a dumptruck of it in this pilot. Sleepy Hollow is full not only of Starbucks–in a funny scene, a puzzled Crane spies one where a livery stable used to be–but of witches, good and bad. The Revolutionary War, it turns out, was not just what you studied in 8th grade history but a metaphysical battle against Death itself.

(The whole elaborate concept of the show, a little frighteningly, recalls the recent fascinating New York magazine interview with Lost’s Damon Lindelof, who posited that you could not make a Hollywood movie about John Henry today without turning it into a mystical thriller involving a Vatican prophecy. John Henry, meet Ichabod Crane!)

As Abbie and Ichabod find themselves facing a problem literally from Hell, their pairing recalls skeptic-believer duos going back to The X-Files–though, again more quickly, Abbie like Scully finds herself personally involved in the case that she first found preposterous. The man-out-of-time premise recalls Fox’s New Amsterdam from several years ago; the apocalyptic plot recalls ABC’s unfortunate Zero Hour from this year.

Sleepy Hollow improves on some of its predecessors in its tone and execution. It’s over the top, but not nearly as self-serious as a Zero Hour–thanks in part to Mison, whose irascible Ichabod woke up on the wrong side of the grave. It can laugh at itself, as Kurtzman and Orci’s Fringe did. (At one point a Caution: Horse Riders traffic sign gets its top lopped off, rendering the generic figure, yep, headless.) And while Ichabod’s incidents of future shock are to be expected, the pilot plays them both for refreshing laughs and to complicate the relationships; the 18th-century man, for instance, is less flummoxed by riding in an automobile than by being the prisoner and subordinate to Abbie, an African American woman. (And women, in this day and age, are permitted to wear trousers!)

On the other hand, as the occultism and National Treasure-esque mythology piled on in the pilot’s second half, I was laughing at what were meant to be its most dramatic revelations. (The brief flashbacks to George Washington and his magic Bible are just this side of Drunk History.) To its credit, Sleepy Hollow is at least committing to its preposterousness, and maybe the developing bond between the out-of-his-time Ichabod and haunted-by-her-past Abbie will ground it enough to keep its carved pumpkin head from flying off its shoulders. For better and worse, though, this spooky drama was also one of the funniest comedy pilots I’ve seen this fall.

Sleepy Hollow got my attention, but I’m not yet sure if it’s good, ridiculous, good but ridiculous, or good because it’s ridiculous. It could turn out, underneath all its DaVinci Code plot overstuffing, to be hollow. But it sure as hell ain’t sleepy.