Back in grade school, Washington Irving's classic 1820 short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was legitimate soil-your-drawers material, with its ghostly antagonist, the Headless Horseman, and cowardly quasi-hero, Ichabod Crane. Do recall, Crane was a nebbish, scaredy schoolteacher vying for the love of Katrina Van Tassel, whose heart was also being chased by the more masculine and attractive douchebag Abraham Van Brunt—that love triangle eventually splinters when the inhuman horseman preys upon poor Ichabod, leaving only a pumpkin in his wake.
When you're, say, 10 and reading Irving's tale, it's creepy, tragic storytelling, notable for its Gothic qualities and macabre mood. Imagine, though, how much more badass "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" would be if, instead of that pumpkin, the Headless Horseman rode around with a sawed-off shotgun and, just for kicks, an even stronger semiautomatic weapon. And if there were also witches involved, along with pre-apocalyptic dread and racial humor. Yes, remix the story you know into something Washington Irving would've written if he'd been the forefather to shamelessly popcorn-entertainment-catering screenwriters. Then, erase any of the potential self-seriousness, apply snark, confidence, and PG-13 bloodshed. You would then have the new Fox series Sleepy Hollow. It should be bad, but is in fact enjoyably ridiculous in the best kind of way.
Fox's Sleepy Hollow is loosely, and we mean LOOSELY, connected to Irving's original story—Ichabod Crane (played by Tom Mison) and the Headless Horseman are there, as is the setting of small-town Sleepy Hollow, but that's where the faithfulness begins and ends. Instead of teaching kids, this Crane is a Revolutionary War soldier who's been mysteriously frozen in a cave for 250 years. He wakes up in modern-day Sleepy Hollow, stumbles onto a highway (Zoinks! What are those crazy yellow lines on the ground?), nearly becomes road kill, and hastily ends up in police custody where he's labeled a psychotic who thinks he's from the year 1781. Only hard-nosed but empathetic cop Abby Mills (Nicole Beharie) is willing to believe Crane—it doesn't hurt that her partner was just beheaded by a headless man on a horse, or that Abby's sister is an insane asylum regular, spurring from a childhood incident when the two siblings saw four glowing white trees in the nearby woods and inexplicably passed out.
Miraculously, the combined talents of one-dimensional director Len Wiseman (known for the Underworld franchise and guilty of cinematic offenses like last year's Total Recall remake) and blockbuster-pandering screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the first two Transformers movies, Star Trek Into Darkness) have created a highly watchable triumph, not the full-scale disaster one would've expected. And because it's the byproduct of merging the minds behind Underworld and Cowboys & Aliens, Sleepy Hollow is appropriately unpretentious.
The pilot moves quickly and with a clear purpose—granted, whatever the hell that purpose is exactly is anyone's guess at this point, but it sure does seem like Wiseman, Orci, and Kurtzman know what's going on at all times. The characters discuss covens, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, beasts from Satan's playground, and blood bonds as if they're Rhodes Scholars on the subjects. But never with chins tilted high. The show's snappy, playful humor is mostly centered around the tit-for-tat interplay between Crane, a former abolitionist, and Mills, a tough black woman. "You've been emancipated, I take it?" asks Ichabod. "From enslavement." Abby's response to his pro-abolition comments comes fast and with a strong hint of sarcasm: "Congratulations, slavery has been abolished for 150 years. It's a whole new day in America." Later, Ichabod, checking out Abby's police uniform, asks: "When did it become acceptable for ladies to wear trousers?"
It's only a matter of time before Ichabod and Abby move on to full-blown sexual innuendos and flirtations, this being a Fox show after all (see: Bones, Fringe). But that's OK here, since Beharie has the acting chops to sell whatever hokey developments may be in store for Mills. Impressing the few people who saw her underrated 2008 indie debut American Violet, the 28-year-old actress keeps proving her abilities playing minor characters in critically embraced, male-led features. So excellent in her brief but crucial role in Steve McQueen's 2011 sex addiction drama Shame, Beharie has been on the cusp of big things for two years now, making the most of her one-sided "loving, supporting spouse" role in this year's Jackie Robinson biopic 42 while quietly bubbling beneath the mainstream's surface, ready to blow if ever given the right project.
In Sleepy Hollow, finally, Beharie's taking center stage, playing the troubled Abby Mills—the show's most interesting character thus far—with a toughness that's nicely offset by moments of dry, smile-free humor. If Sleepy Hollow is fortunate enough to last long enough to include a breakout star, it'll surely be Beharie. Mison, for his part, is amiable but too rigid in his fish-out-of-water situation. Beharie devours his figurative lunch in all of their scenes together.
Year in and year out, the fall TV season breeds more easily forgotten casualties the enduring successes. This fall's first new show to earn must-watch acclaim, Sleepy Hollow definitely set the bar high for itself last night, undoubtedly because the bar was set so low before its airing. Putting a property as absurdly high-concept as this into the hands of Wiseman, Orci, and Kurtzman should've been TiVo poison—that's not the case here. Sleepy Hollow's creators obviously want it to be the next Grimm, but, if the pilot is any indication, it could end up being a less provocative and streamlined cousin to True Blood. First, though, it'll need to iron out the actual story. Only one episode in, the mythology is already convoluted, though also oddly intriguing. The mumbo-jumbo about stopping the end of days and how main characters Ichabod Crane and Abby Mills are preordained to fight the apocalypse's messengers is all delivered with conviction and briskness. Thankfully, there aren't any moments of expository overload. Before confusion grows into frustration, talky scenes are interrupted by lively, stylized violence—the first-person POV decapitation is maybe the greatest thing Wiseman's ever shot.
As Sleepy Hollow's introductory hour wraps up, its creators are clearly having a ball. The episode ends on a wild note, with a gruesome attack from a horned demon accompanied by a voiceover citing lyrics from Johnny Cash's "When the Man Comes Around." All due respect to Washington Irving, it sure as hell beats ambiguity punctuated by a smashed pumpkin.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)