Friday, November 1, 2013

Sleepy Hollow: Who Knew An Apocalypse Could Be So Much Fun?

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 1, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison star in Fox's Sleepy Hollow

On Monday night, Sleepy Hollow will return from the brief hiatus it took after it aired its fifth episode. With the shadow of Halloween still briefly upon us, this seems as good a time as any to explain why perhaps you should already have been watching Fox's new supernatural thriller. Sleepy Hollow's delightful unpretentious recipe of fantasy, horror, over-the-top melodrama, alternate history and police procedural stands out among the new dramas this fall season. And the light touch the show brings to its subject matter is a welcome respite from our post-Homeland universe of unending, and ever-ramping up, intensity (see: CBS's Hostages) reminding television viewers that sometimes TV can actually be fun.

The series is ostensibly but not really a "modern-day re-telling" of Washington Irving's classic short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Using the name of the 'hero' of "Sleepy Hollow", and some of the setting and the one single memorable detail from Irving's "Rip Van Winkle", Sleepy Hollow takes off from there with gleeful abandon throwing in some unambiguously apocalyptic overtones just for good measure. Imagine if Grimm and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had a illegitimate child, and you may have a taste of what Sleepy Hollow often feels like.

One look at the show's pedigree, and none of this would come as any surprise. The résumés of Sleepy Hollow's co-creators, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, reads like a "best of" list of television at its most entertaining, unselfconscious, and downright giddy. Kurtzman and Orci first worked together back in the 1990s on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, and even on Jack of All Trades, Bruce Campbell's delightfully irreverent turn as a turn-of-the-19th-century American spy. But the two hit their zenith with Fringe, the Fox series they co-created with J.J. Abrams (before the two joined him on his big-screen Star Trek adventure), and oversaw for 5 remarkable seasons. In many ways, Sleepy Hollow has more in common with those unapologetically B-television Sam Raimi/Rob Tapert shows of the 90s than Fringe and it is all the better for it.

At the centre of Sleepy Hollow is Ichabod Crane, played with smoldering glee by still-rising British stage actor Tom Mison (BBC's Parade's End). Mison's Crane is very much his own man: gone are every feature of Ichabod Crane's literary persona (the pedantic school-teacher with the famously huge ears, long nose, and scarecrow-like build) save one: a single unfortunate encounter with a horseman sadly lacking a head. We meet Crane in 1781, a dashing hero of the American Revolutionary War who suffers a terrible injury on the battlefield and finds himself mysteriously awakened over 230 years later, in contemporary Westchester County, New York, near the village of Sleepy Hollow. What he doesn't yet know is that the figure he faced off with centuries earlier (though it is worth pointing out that the other guy no longer has an actual face...) has accompanied him into the 21st century, set to complete the demonic plans Crane so rudely interrupted.

Crane, we quickly learn, was no ordinary soldier; a former Oxford University history professor turned American spy, he was long ago drafted by General Washington himself into a secret war between good and evil that apparently runs parallel to the official history of the era. Rewriting established early American history at every turn, the show's plot centres on the apocalyptic predictions of the Book of Revelation (Irving's famous Horseman apparently has three friends!), which Crane reads from the copy of George Washington's bible which he discovers has followed him into the future. (Before watching Sleepy Hollow, I couldn't have known this but apparently I'm a sucker for a script which gets to repeat the phrase "George Washington's bible" with any regularity.) Something portentous and magical was afoot in the early days of the United States, and those battles are now being waged on the streets of a sleepy Hudson Valley hamlet.

Crane soon falls in with Abby Mills (Nicole Beharie), an ambitious young local police lieutenant who has been negotiating some dark secrets of her own. As a teenager, Abby and her sister Jenny (played by Canadian Lyndie Greenwood, Nikita) survived a demonic encounter which left them each in various levels of brokenness, eventually leading to their estrangement with Abby spending most of her energy running from the experience, and Jenny going in and out of mental health facilities. The character of Jenny, and her Sarah Connor-esque response to the encroaching end times, remains one of the most promising elements of the young series. Sleepy Hollow's mythology is still in its early stages, and it remains ambiguous which of the two sisters will play the most decisive role in the prophesied "seven years of tribulation" still to come. (The best comparison of the relationship of the two sisters might be the Buffy-Faith storylines of the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: two women with powerful destinies but one who falls under the timely tutelage of a mentor in Abby's case, a wise sheriff played the incomparable Clancy Brown of HBO's equally incomparable, but short-lived, Carnivàle and the other forced to negotiate her difficult destiny on her own.)

Lyndie Greenwood as Jenny Mills
For all the originality of the series in its tone, Sleepy Hollow still often plays right out of Grimm's playbook: setting the series in a relatively smallish police jurisdiction, in a town with a magical underbelly that has been known only to a few; a police captain (Orlando Jones) who clearly knows more than he's letting on; and even supplying a convenient storehouse of documents, diary accounts, and newspaper clippings for our team to research when the next inexplicable thing happens.
 
But unlike NBC's Grimm, which stuck to the crime procedural genre rather religiously at its outset (following a monster-of-the-week format until deep into the first season before giving its story a wider, even global, frame), Sleep Hollow lay its epic cards on the table almost within the first 15 minutes. (And as much as I continue to enjoy Grimm, which launched its third season last Friday, the show is usually at its best when it returns to its episodic fantasy-crime show roots. Last season's ongoing mystical amnesia plotline dragged on far too long, and it was a relief when it finally ended.) Hollow too retains many procedural rhythms, but there's something honest and forthright about a series that dares to be its most audacious right out of the gate. Everything is at stake in this sleepy Westchester town, with all the forces of darkness even Death itself on horseback knocking at the door.

Mison brings the requisite intensity to the character of Crane, but without jettisoning the simple comic potential of the 18th-century man stuck in a 21st-century world that comes from seeing a character with such emotional maturity express plain delight and wonder at automatic windows and TV remotes, or for example the look on his face when he tastes his first energy drink. Even by the fifth episode, Crane is still wearing his only set of Revolutionary-era clothing on a daily basis, presumably spending most of his free time shining brass buttons and washing his uniform in a motel sink. The scene that opens the fourth episode – with Crane negotiating a conversation with a emergency car systems operator that helps him unlock his car door – might be brief, but on its own, it's almost worth the full three hours that it takes to get us there! (The show also gets bonus points for resisting that no doubt tempting opportunity for product placement.)

Sleepy Hollow returns to Fox (in the US) and Global (in Canada) this Monday night. It has already been renewed for a second season.