This show should not have worked. And yet it does. How did SLEEPY HOLLOW’s first season give us 13 episodes of full-bore insanity without burning out like a dying star?
“On my way. Colon closed parenthesis.” Oh. It’s a man’s face. I suppose that’s charming.
When I reviewed the pilot episode of Sleepy Hollow back in September, I felt it was a fun — if loopy — show with a good sense of what it wanted to be, but was concerned that it wouldn’t be able to maintain that propulsive momentum over the course of a full season. Like many wild, high-concept series before it, it was due to burn out…probably sooner rather than later.
I am thrilled to admit that I was wrong.
Let’s be honest, Sleepy Hollow is a patently ludicrous show. You’ve got a Headless Horseman with a machine gun…who is one of the famous Four of the Apocalypse…who are controlled by the demon Moloch…who has pitted himself against Ichabod Crane…who has been transported 200 years into the future…and whose wife was a witch…and remembers George Washington as a Masonic cult leader who was trying to not just defeat the Redcoats, but stop the end of the world.
Again, there is no way this show should have worked. So let’s talk about why it does.
First — as produced by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Sleepy Hollow has a complete mastery of its tone. The visual aesthetic is “Tim Burton Gothic” (right down the the Elfman-apeing credits theme), with a desaturated palette awash in greys and blues. It’s designed to be a spooky Halloween show, and it pulls that off in spades. The monsters are varied and creepy without being too silly: the Sandman, the Golem, and of course the various demons and the Horseman himself are well-designed and well-executed. The cinematography and editing manage to cover the typical “man in rubber suit” problems — if I ever found myself smiling, it was because something looked cool in spite of it, not dumb. In some sequences, like the initial capture of the Horseman deep underground (through a heady combo of science and magic, naturally), it’s downright thrilling.
Hollow doesn’t have that overcooked ambition to be the “next great supernatural drama” — it’s transparent about its goals, which are simply to be a heck of a lot of fun and keep viewers coming back. And nothing gives the show more to work off of than its casting. The two leads (Tom Mison & Nichole Beharie) have a chemistry that is off the charts, and their witty rapport enlivens many an episode that would otherwise lean too heavily towards its plodding mythology. Crane and his “leftenant”Abbie Mills have an easy rapport, and their ongoing adventures in bringing Ichabod up to the 21st century are real highlights: she gets him to yell at a baseball umpire; Crane has an existential conversation with the On*Star lady; he tries on — GASP — skinny jeans. (“God’s wounds,” he wearily swears.) It’s all slightly tongue-in-cheek; one of the things I appreciated about the pilot is that everyone pretty much accepted Crane’s situation right away (Crane included), so the show didn’t waste any time having him win people over. It helps, of course, that Ichabod is an incredibly progressive 18th-century man; no social rehabilitation is needed with a black female police officer. (The show’s cast, as a whole, is impressively diverse. That could be the subject of a whole ‘nother article.) Crane is awesome, he’s from the past, end of story.
And on what other series is the most sympathetic character the demon’s pitiful henchman? John Cho is underused, but whenever he appears he’s good for a bleak laugh. He doesn’t get to just die, he’s rarely given an important job to do; he just mopes around and re-adjusts his bones in their sockets. Poor guy. And the rest of the cast — from Katia Winter as Crane’s impossibly beautiful (and trapped in Purgatory) wife Katrina, to Orlando Jones as Capt. Irving (so far, the name being just an homage), to Lyndie Greenwood as Abbie’s mental patient sister Jenny (who desperately needs to be bumped up to series regular next season, assuming she survives the car crash) — all of them fill their roles with ease, and ground the show as recognizable human beings even as the storytelling steers towards camp.
And oh boy, that storytelling. Fox made the best possible decision in limiting Hollow’s season to only 13 episodes, and the show used them well. It kept the pedal to the metal all winter, throwing up bonkers twist after twist (the Horseman is Crane’s ex-best friend! The sin-eater played by the incomparable John Noble is Crane and Katia’s son! George Washington is a zombie!!!), and only through sheer verve did it not collapse in on itself. I picture the show like the mine cart in Temple of Doom — and on every curve, it comes perilously close to tipping, but never does. It’s obviously a credit to the showrunners, who know just how far they can push things, and still execute it flawlessly.
Where the show has the most fun is when it turns towards revisionist history. Crane is constantly dropping tantalizing tidbits about what really happened during the Tea Party, Revere’s ride, the Boston Massacre, and much more; the entire war has been re-framed as a prelude to the supernatural war currently being waged in Sleepy Hollow. But unlike something like National Treasure, It’s not even a “turn your brain off” kind of ride, either. It rewards attentive viewers, scattering clues throughout the season that culminated in its truly bugnuts two-hour conclusion, which leaves us with a cliffhanger for every major character: Jenny might be dead, Irving has turned in his badge (the weakest subplot by far, but Jones sells it), Katia has been kidnapped — again! — by the horseman, Abbie is trapped in Purgatory, and Crane has been buried alive. Wowzers. That’s how you do a season finale (not to mention the cheeky direct cut to “Sympathy for the Devil” over the credits). Not since the golden age of LOST has one been so perfectly calibrated and paced, giving the audience shocking answers but making everything SOMEHOW plausible. Barely. But enough!
That’s the show in a nutshell: “barely plausible, but plausible enough.”
Of course, if you don’t watch the show, you likely read that previous paragraph and were either intrigued, or think I’m insane. All I can say is, Sleepy Hollow can’t just be read about — it must be experienced. Lines like “The answers are in George Washington’s Bible!” (seriously, try saying that with a straight face) that totally do not work on the page just add to the delightfully campy experience, thanks to an unholy amalgam of confident writing, a super-appealing cast, and consistent production value. I mean, are there flaws? Sure. Some “monsters of the week” don’t totally work — on the whole, the prosthetics fare better than the network-budget CGI — and a few minor characters are unnecessary distractions (looking at you, Morales…and even you, Irving’s family problems), but in the face of how much fun this series is, I’m quibbling. And besides, if you’ve already given yourself over to THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN WITH A MACHINE GUN, you’re not looking for an airtight prestige drama.
Sleepy Hollow isn’t a mere guilty pleasure. It’s pure pleasure. It’s an adrenaline shot to the pleasure center of your brain. I almost never watched it at all — I was convinced it would be too cheesy to survive — but it turned into perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2013 TV season. And now I’m hopelessly addicted.
Finale Grade: A-
Season Grade: B+