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At first blush Sleepy Hollow seems the natural heir to the “cult nonsense” crown previously held by shows like The Cape: It’s so delectably silly it’s practically guaranteed to find fans who exist in a world beyond irony, yet just as guaranteed a swift death by cancellation. The core concept is bonkers enough: Tom Mison, a sexy Brit-turned-revolutionary fighting against the redcoats, is transported to modern-day Sleepy Hollow to fight the Headless Horseman, who he decapitated on the field of battle. There’s the usual man-out-of-time gags—Mison is startled by cars and asks his contemporary partner, county cop Nicole Beharie, if she was liberated from slavery because she’s black.
But it also looks like this will shake out as a supernatural procedural with a hefty dose of serialization mixed in, much like Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s last show, Fringe. So a lot of mythological groundwork has to be laid as well, raising Sleepy Hollow from simply goofy to admirably demented. The Horseman is just one of the four horseman of the Apocalypse, maybe, and the answers to defeating him lie in George Washington’s Bible. At one point, the horseman totes a machine gun; there’s also a lot of business with witches and covens and spooky symbolism. One of the four credited cast members is Katia Winter, playing Mison’s beloved bride—who’s been dead for 200-odd years.
Sleepy Hollow works because it approaches everything with a relatively straight face, yet never seems to be taking itself too seriously. It blows through every bit of info-dumping matter-of-factly, and by the end of the premiere every character’s on board. The pilot suffers (as all genre pilots must suffer) by having every character express the skepticism the audience requires, but it’s happily brief so we can get on with the business of fighting the Horseman and uncovering all the apocalyptic secrets swirling around him (the Book Of Revelation is quoted multiple times in the pilot).
This is especially refreshing in a fall season short on surprises and chock full of new shows playing it safe. That’s not to say that Kurtzman and Orci (who re-worked a script by Phillip Iscove; Underworld’s Len Wiseman directed and gets a creator credit, too) are re-inventing the wheel. Sleepy Hollow is a mishmash of established tropes and could easily end up playing out as a higher-budget Supernatural led by buddy-cops rather than a pair of brothers. But the show wears its silliness like a badge of honor and boldly demands its audience get right on board or get out of the way.
It’s also a show that could easily fall apart in a week. Its best-case scenario sees it slowly building a following as it fleshes out its mythology and the whole “centuries-long battle against primordial evil” arc that is the spine of the show. No doubt the next few weeks will see the premise re-established over and over again, Mison struggling with things like alarm clocks and cell phones and elected officials who are also women. Also threatening his adjustment to the 21st century: a bunch of non-threatening monsters of the week. The show wisely sets itself up for easy procedural fun. There’s no talk of a Hellmouth but there might as well be—Sleepy Hollow is plagued with bizarre incidents and supernatural crimes that go unsolved.
Best known for her luminescent performance in Steve McQueen’s dark Shame, Nicole Beharie is capably steely in the premiere, but she’ll need a little more fleshing out to keep up with the brooding Mison, who’s playing a lean, axe-wielding, intellectual super-warrior. No matter that his character is depicted as a nervous, twittering sop in most adaptations of Washington Irving’s work. This is a re-imagining through and through.
Will Sleepy Hollow survive? It seems like the kind of show that should be airing on Fridays and building a quiet but devoted fanbase, like NBC’s surprise hit Grimm. Instead, it’s being thrust into the Monday maelstrom against Dancing With The Stars, 2 Broke Girls, and The Voice, where it will at least stand out as something different. It feels silly to so strongly recommend a show that thumbs its nose at the audience with how catastrophically silly it is—but so be it.
Created by: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Phillip Iscove, Len Wiseman
Starring: Tom Mison, Nicole Beharie, Orlando Jones, Katia Winter
Debuting: Monday at 9 p.m. eastern on Fox
Format: Hour-long drama
Pilot episode watched for review
Reviews of Sleepy Hollow by Zack Handlen will appear weekly.