In last Monday’s episode of Sleepy Hollow, “The Vessel,” Lieutenant Abbie Mills intones to Ichabod Crane, the time-traveling spy, a single, portentous line: “Hell hath frozen over.” They are in a remote cabin—as remote as Westchester County allows—investigating the appearance of the demon Moloch, who has just threatened Abbie’s soul. In the past few weeks, they have vanquished a golem summoned by Ichabod’s son, trapped the Headless Horseman in an enchantment, and contained a plague leaching out from the lost colony of Roanoke. But what they are discussing here is not the cold touch of the supernatural—it is skinny jeans. Ichabod steps out from behind a closed door wearing a button-down shirt and jeans, looking about as pained as he did when he discovered he had a child just a few episodes ago. She laughs, and he glares at her. “One sign of the impeding apocalypse is surely skinny jeans,” he says, after attempting to sit down his new tight pants. He utters an archaic swear: “God’s wounds.”
Arguably, the finest aspect of Sleepy Hollow is this relationship at its center: between Tom Mison’s long-shanked Ichabod Crane and the petite, tough police lieutenant Abbie Mills, played by Nicole Beharie. The two characters are brought together by mysterious forces to be at the front lines of the battle between good and evil—a battle that will take place in quiet little Sleepy Hollow, naturally, because the four horsemen of the apocalypse are going to convene there. Ichabod and Abbie could not be more different. He is a Revolutionary War-era spy and former professor at Oxford (just go with it) who married a witch and then was flung forward in time. She is a cop who was trying to get into the FBI before being dragged into the mysterious murder of her mentor, reconciliation with her sister, the discovery of her role in the apocalypse, and the arrival of a longhaired, breeches-clad stranger who claimed to be from another century. They have proven to have an easy, friendly chemistry that gets them through adventures with creatures from hell, Abbie’s issues with her family, and Ichabod’s continuing frustrations with the modern world. Which is to say that they are a televisual match made in heaven—one of the most ’shippable couples on television today. After all—Abbie bought Ichabod a bunch of clothes so she could get him out of his stiff breeches and long waistcoat. And though she might protest—for sartorial purposes! For blending in! For dry cleaning!—the romantic imperative of any television show suggests otherwise.
Sleepy Hollow is successful because it provides enough fan service to make fandom possible—without steeping itself too much in what is, ultimately, cheap manipulation. Or, to put it more bluntly, it’s more Whedonesque than Moffatesque. Joss Whedon’s many productions, including Firefly and The Avengers, are full of moments like the above, where the characters reveal a tantalizing hint of their inner world in a conversation that could be from high school. (In the case of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, they are in high school.) Steven Moffat, meanwhile, the current showrunner for Doctor Who and co-creator of Sherlock, is apparently more interested in the fan-fictional implications of his stories than the mechanics of the stories themselves. Sleepy Hollow is fun, but not at the expense of basic fictional logic.
And that sensibility makes Sleepy Hollow one of the most enjoyable debuts from last fall. Every episode presents another chapter of a surprisingly coherent supernatural mythos—it might be fantastical, but it has a better sense of history and lore than, for example, National Treasure. Sleepy Hollow borrows a lot of ideas from National Treasure—at this point, the show has made George Washington out to be a benign, Masonic witch-king, which is straight out of National Treasure’s playbook. But Sleepy Hollow is both slower and smarter. The show’s supernatural elements are deeply rooted in character. The connections between the American Revolution and the four horsemen of the apocalypse arise naturally from the relationships between the characters with a facility that puts National Treasure to shame. And alongside every element of fantasy is a moment of character intimacy: Abbie and Ichabod save each other’s lives, hug, attend baseball games, and occasionally position their faces very close to each others’ butts (Abbie was climbing a fence, and Ichabod was… helping).
Because, ultimately, what makes Sleepy Hollow so watchable is how much fun it is having with its own premise. This is a decidedly anti-serious show that still manages to say serious things about its characters; makes statements but doesn’t try too hard. The cast of Sleepy Hollow is one of the most diverse on television, but it’s rarely if ever a subject of conversation. (Ichabod did ask if the slaves were freed at some point.) Sleepy Hollow tangles with death and the apocalypse, but the show remains light enough to make jokes about denim. It doesn’t take itself too seriously with its action, which frees it to be a bit more serious with character.
That also makes it more willing to take risks. There are few plodding storylines and dead-end characters on the show—characters are used and disposed of quickly, like John Cho’s Andy, who became a terrible possessed being for a several-episode streak before vanishing. (He might show up in the finale, though.) The past is mined for story, but because Sleepy Hollow has the advantage of two different pasts to draw on, so far the flashbacks and backstory do not seem tired. And though the characters are powerful enough to trap their monsters, they are not so magical that they can avoid their fate. This is a show that knows its boundaries, and has mastered a certain kind of measured storytelling (and you’d expect nothing less from a writing team that includes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci).
It’s unlikely Sleepy Hollow will ever be award-winning television. This is a show where statements like “The demon possessed my sister, and she never told me?” are commonplace. It’s as implausible that Sleepy Hollow would be the center of the final war between good and evil as it is that the founding fathers conspired to hide sacred artifacts to use in the war against evil—during the hard work of starting a new country. And Ichabod is impossibly perfect—an 18th century gentleman who is so honorable that he is loyal to his lost wife, polite to all strangers, deferent to Lieutenant Mills, and quite handsome. (His hair is always slightly disheveled, no matter what else is happening, so that a few strands of hair attractively frame his face.) In its airy lightness, the show sacrifices realism for fun.
But it’s also clear that Sleepy Hollow doesn’t aspire to be anything except a very good B-show—and as this first season closes, it has proven to be exactly that.
Created by: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Phillip Iscove, and Len Wiseman
Starring: Tom Mison, Nicole Beharie, Orlando Jones, Katia Winter
Finale airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Fox
Full series to date watched for review