17
Sep
2013
Sleepy Hollow: Season 1, Episode 1
Pilot
Michael Richardson
Quick hypothetical: a snarky blogger is assigned to watch a show about a time travelling character from a single 18th century story who is brought to the present to bring down his old ghostly enemy, who now uses modern military hardware to kill rather than those old axes, and two surprising things happen. Surprise number one: it’s not a sexy remake of Shelley’s Zastrozzi (my screenplay still has a shot!), but rather a modern update of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, something nobody was clamoring for. And surprise number 2: It’s kind of great.

In this version of the classic tale, Ichabod Crane is still a teacher. Well, not really. He’s a professor at Oxford, sent by the British to crush the American Rebellion who then turns the proverbial coat and becomes a spy for the Americans. After befriending George Washington, he encounters a hulking red coat with an iron mask on the field of battle. Impervious to gunshot, Crane takes down this colonial Bane with a swipe of his sword, rendering him headless, but not before suffering a terrible wound himself. The day is saved, we’re all done here. Until Crane wakes from a coma in a cave 200 years later.

In our present, we’re introduced to a pair of delightful local cops, Abbie Mills and Sheriff August Corbin. Called to check out a suspicious situation at a farmhouse on the edge of town, the pair meet the Headless Horseman himself, also risen from the dead after having his murder career cut short. Corbin meets the man’s broadaxe first hand, however, and faster than you can say “Guest starring Clancy Brown,” we’re down to one friend in blue.

Crane manages to ingratiate himself with Mills by providing details about her partner’s killer and the man he thought he killed so long ago, so Mills goes along with this babbling lunatic to his recent grave site, where they collect George Washington’s own bible, and piece together that this cranium-challenged individual is none other than Death, first of the four horseman of Apocalypse fame. And then things get crazy, because this is just the first 20 minutes.

There is a lot that could go wrong here. On the surface, the plot line is absolutely absurd. By the end of the first hour, we’ll hear about witch covens, demons, ghost trees, mystical eagles, and blood magic. Turns out that when Crane and H.H. fell on the field of battle, their blood mixed together, linking them forever. We hear this from Crane’s wife in the future, who took it upon herself to hide the Horseman’s head, the secret to his power. Also, she’s one of the aforementioned witches, part of a “secret order” dedicated to holding back evil, and is trapped in some kind of strange demon hellscape. Like I said, complicated.

It’s rare for a concept like this to actually result in an enjoyable product. ABC’s Once Upon a Time faltered under it’s own pretensions, while films like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and Jack the Giant Slayer opened to epic shrugs from audiences. The fairy tale is a form that resists updates for several reasons, but most importantly, it’s because their stories on the literal level are so silly.

Sleepy Hollow solves this problem not with ironic posturing or self-referencing, but taking the material seriously while glossing over it’s rougher bits. By the end of the episode, everybody who was skeptical at the beginning is on board with a machine-gun wielding monster and a time-travelling British spy. Amen to that, because if we spent half a season trying to convince people of these facts, this show would have no steam. It’s like we skipped the show's boring first half of the season and got to the fun part. The horseman is frighteningly rendered, at least when he’s not waving around an assault rifle like a worse-off Gomer Pyle. And the big bad, seen briefly at the end, provides some legitimate spooks, even if it looks like they just bought leftover costumes from Pan's Labyrinth.

This material is anchored by twin leading performances that are so understated that it’s a surprise they don’t fade into the background. Relative newcomer Tom Mison plays Crane as charmingly bewildered rather than a total fish out of water, and somewhat indignant about being in the modern world at all. “Where am I?” he asks. “The question isn't where, but when,” intones his interrogator, and needless to say he takes that line better than I do. There’s a bit of typical time travel humor - our modern satirists never get tired of pointing out how much we love Starbucks - but for the most part Crane is a real character with real motivation, not just an excuse for slapstick.

Opposite him is Nicole Beharie (42) as Mills, dry and sarcastic, and willing to believe anything if it helps her find her partner’s killer. The two gain the chemistry of old friends very quickly, playing off each other nicely in slower moments between action set pieces. Beharie plays the heroine well, reacting to ever-increasing craziness with a knowing stoicism, with an undercurrent of vulnerability that still avoids the cliches of female cops on television. Both performances are totally measured, never rising to the campiness of their surroundings.

But most of all, the material in the pilot works because it’s just a lot of damn fun. It’s action is well choreographed and exciting, it’s humor is evident throughout, and it’s leads are totally enjoyable (if not terribly deep yet). This isn't a generic grim-dark re-imagining of a classic tale, nor is it a brooding procedural. And when they talk about witch covens and Washington’s bible, it’s handled in that pleasing tone familiar to all genre fans - “I suppose this is ridiculous if you think about it too hard, but why the hell are you thinking about it at all?” In this case, you’d just be cheating yourself out of a good time.

Judging by the trailer for the rest of the season, it’ll be interesting to see if the show can maintain it’s balance between camp and drama. There’s some special effects that bring to mind the first season of the new Doctor Who, but that can be overlooked if it’s in service to a good story. And while the lead actors are a big strength for a procedural like this, its success really hinges on the material they're given. There are so many moving parts introduced in this pilot that it would be easy to imagine the whole series falling apart with a few minor missteps. But if those missteps are as delightfully batty as the first hour, it will still be thoroughly entertaining television.

Grade: B+

Miscellany:

-John Cho is in the pilot, and I’m really not sure why. Does John Cho have a rabid fan-base that will watch anything he’s in? Couldn’t they have just replaced him with one of those nice One Direction boys if they were trying to draw eyes?

-The show quickly sets up the possibility that anyone could be a spy for evil, including that mean police captain who is always chewing out our heroine. Does the force’s physical exam check for goat horns?

-The Horsemen of the Apocalypse is the only theology we get here. No mentions of Satan, or anything else vaguely religious. But the Book of Revelations is a deep well of insanity to draw from, and I hope they come back to it.

-There is a sweet duel between a 250 year-old priest who looks like Clint Eastwood and has wizard powers and the Headless Horseman, and I can retire in peace after writing this sentence.

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