WARNING: The following is so spoilerific you could plotz.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: This is not your father’s Sleepy Hollow. It’s not Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, or Walt Disney’s Sleepy Hollow. It’s not even Tim Burton’s crazypants, foggy fever dream Sleepy Hollow – though it does owe the latter a kind of spiritual debt by running with its Headless-Horseman-is-real-and-Ichabod-Crane-is-a-stone-cold-hottie revisionism.
The pilot wastes no time setting its premise, whisking the audience directly to the Hudson Valley, NY, circa 1781, just in time to see the new and improved Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison – soon to be the object of a thousand Facebook fan pages near you) heroically fighting on the battlefield and personally headlessing the eponymous Horseman. Unfortunately, Ichabod is mortally wounded in the scuffle and dies. Though not, we later learn, before his and the Horseman’s blood get cross contaminated, linking them for all eternity (or, at least, until the series is cancelled, whichever comes first).
Being too decorative to stay dead, Ichabod is next seen digging himself out of the ground in a cave appointed in early occult hoarder, then nearly getting run over by two vehicles. Three, if you count the police car driven by Officer Andy Brooks (John Cho, a.k.a. New Sulu of the rebooted Star Trek), who promptly arrests him, apparently for jaywalking while being too pretty. Welcome to 2013!
And all that (aside from the Officer Andy encounter) before the opening credits! One cannot fault the writers for lacking in industry.
We barely have time to meet the next players, Sheriff August Corbin (Clancy “Don’t Get Too Excited, This Is Only A Cameo” Brown) and our heroine, smart and scrappy go-getter, Lt. Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie, of 42 and American Violet fame), who share exposition about weird murders, Abbie’s upcoming date with the FBI, a sly, portentous nod to a not at all suspicious reverend in the next booth and some damn fine apple pie before all hell – or at least, a charter member of it – breaks loose.
Less than five minutes later, the Horseman has claimed his first 21st century victim, scored a neat, new, glowy-eyed ride, scared the traumatizing back story out of Abbie and left poor Sheriff Clancy… well,… beside himself.
With barely a commercial break to catch her breath, Abbie is ushered to a jail cell, where a cuffed and oh, so sad-looking you just wanna hug him and take him home and cuddle him like a widdle lost puppy, omg, sooo cyooo – uh, ahem… where Ichabod sits on a bench. She’s asked to ID him as Sheriff Clancy’s killer, but the very, very subtle appearance of a head on Ichabod’s shoulders tells her he’s not the guy. Realizing that describing the perp’s most singular identifying feature would not go over well, she instead rambles on about his military uniform and the mark on his hand (because a cool designer hand tat is totally what you notice when looking up in the pitch dark at an axe-wielding, headless apparition on a demonic horse, who just murdered your beloved mentor).
From here on, it’s a whirl in the lie detector for some Ichabodian reminiscing, a detour to the cave for a spot of clue gathering, Washington’s Bible-perusing, apocalyptic forewarning and colonial flashbacking and a jaunt to the local nuthatch for Abbie’s confessional flashback, featuring her now-unhinged sister, four white trees and an irritatingly coy demon. All of which is supposed to add up to Armageddon (the Biblical to-do, not the Bruce Willis movie) and seven years of Tribulation, with the four Horsemen – headless model included – leading the parade.
But wait! There’s more! A trip to Sheriff Clancy’s office to root around his secret files reveals he was an obsessive End Times aficionado with a particular interest in Abbie’s arboreal adventure. Meanwhile, back at the funny farm, Ichabod has a prophetic dream, in which he discovers his wife is moonlighting as a creepy spirit eagle whilst trapped in a nightmarish forested purgatory where they apparently have high quality make-up and hair care products and a well-stocked Frederick’s of Williamsburg.
Oh, and sandwiched in there, somewhere, the aforementioned Not At All Suspicious Reverend tries to take on the Horseman, with predictable results, leading to a police cordon of the church and its quaint, dilapidated cemetery addition. Also drawn unauthorized to the scene is Ichabod, who discovers his wife’s tombstone only to learn, too late for marriage counseling, that she was a witch and that no good divination goes unpunished.
It’s a giant, daunting edifice of exposition and in lesser hands, it would be a messy, confusing bore. But both the writers and actors manage to pull it all off with surprising – dare I say, amazing – grace.
The final (for now) confrontation is well done and exciting, as Ichabod and Abbie race against time and graveyard vandalism laws to keep the Horseman (or Death, to his friends) from reclaiming his cranium and calling his three besties to get this apocalypse party started.
There are few things more intimidating than a Headless Horseman with an axe. Unless, of course, it’s a Headless Horseman with a fully loaded automatic assault rifle, and thanks in very small part to secret evil minion Officer Andy and his adorably ineffectual attempts at betrayal, Abbie and the other good guys with guns have little luck taking the baddie down. It takes the first rays of the rising sun to let the Horseman know he’s up past his bedtime and send him galloping off, leaving Ichabod bravely clutching his pickled head, like it’s the world’s nastiest bottle of tequila.
Now that the Horseman has been seen by others in all his topless glory, the apocalyptic genie is out of the bottle and Captain Irving (see what they did there?), played by Orlando Jones in a rare non-bizarro role, unofficially dubs Abbie and Ichabod a team in order to get answers out of Officer Andy, currently stewing morosely in a cell. But before our intrepid duo can reach him, a very disappointed demon pops in to say – in subtitled hellspeak – that he’s very disappointed, then pops Officer Andy’s head backward like the flip-top lid on a box of Tic-Tacs. A&I come in just in time to see the gruesome results and the demon’s exit via a mirror, which it smashes in a hissy fit, like Russel Crowe with a paparazzi’s camera.
Pilot episodes can be dodgy beasts; unwieldy and lumbering under the weight of story set-up, character introduction and, in the case of horror and fantasy shows, the onus of laying down the very ground rules that this world plays by. Sleepy Hollow doesn’t entirely leap gazelle-like over all these obstacles, but it does keep zipping along fast enough that you don’t really mind the occasional trip and stumble. Besides which, it’s a show that’s clearly in on its own joke. While smartly taking its various threats seriously enough to maintain a proper level of suspense, Sleepy Hollow never completely loses sight of the innate absurdity of its concept, making free satiric use of Ichabod’s bemused fish-out-of-water point-of-view and ordinary folk’s reactions to the appearance of apocalyptic monsters in their modern midst.
Most importantly, Sleepy Hollow has a pair of talented and engaging leads with fantastic chemistry. Mison and Beharie invest their characters with tremendous warmth, humor and humanity. However ridiculous the situation gets, you believe their commitment to it. And to each other. From their first witty banter it’s clear they’re going to make a great pair. Beyond being easy on the eyes, they both exude intelligence and play off each other’s strengths and quirks. The tropes of series TV being what they are it’s obvious from the get-go that they’re going to be a team. It’s to the credit of the actors that it’s not just a foregone conclusion, but a true pleasure.
So, what have we learned today, kids? Well, Sleepy Hollow pretty much invites, even dares, comparison to other series, from the X-Files and Fringe, to Grimm and even National Treasure. No points for breaking new thematic ground. But what it lacks in novelty, it more than makes up for in pure entertainment. The show is fun, plain and simple. The writers’ biggest challenge will be to keep from falling into an episodic, hellbeast-of-the-week slump while dropping their story arc breadcrumbs along the way. Personally, I’m in for this journey.
Missed an episode? Catch up on http://www.fox.com/sleepy-hollow/
Got any questions, comments, raves, reservations or revelations about the ep? Let the wide world know in the comments below.