The first episode of Sleepy Hollow aired last night, and in case you made the terrible mistake of not watching, we should talk about changing that.
The thing is – and I get it – this is a hard show to take on faith. The pitch is, “She’s a skeptical but driven law enforcement officer with a secret past, he’s a superstitious dude from another era who makes sarcastic jokes about things these days, and together they try to solve occult crimes that are genuinely creepy except for the laugh-out-loud cheesy parts!” That’s a show that has committed to everything, all at once! That’s an impossible pitch! (That’s essentially the pitch for The X-Files! We’ll come back to this.)
But this show does commit to everything, all at once, and it pretty much works.
Usually, with a pilot, there are visible seams: awkward pacing, not-quite-there moments between the leads, tone issues. That’s fine – pilot-itis is a recognized television illness plaguing many shows that went on to greatness, and Sleepy Hollow’s pilot has some dialogue clunkers that it needs to smooth out in the long run – but of the laundry list of greater concerns, the pilot addressed almost all of them. Its leads are well-acted and already being fleshed out beyond the tropes they’re starting from (with Nicole Beharie in particular delivering some fantastic beats); the man-out-of-time angle flies for about thirty seconds and then everyone largely moves on; the high-concept angles get locked in early.
And, perhaps most crucially, the show skilfully embraces the inherent cheese of its Headless Horseman and shifts the focus of its horror to things more shadowy, half-remembered, harder to define. That this works so well to intrigue in a show where a major plot point involves George Washington’s Bible is testament to the confidence this show has in where it’s going, and its ability to handle it.
Here’s how it gets there.
We open in 1781 as Ichabod Crane slices the Horseman’s head off mid-battle, because of all the shows that don’t waste your time, Sleepy Hollow is out to waste the least time ever. It’s a heated fight – reenactors down everywhere! – and Ichabod’s mortally wounded.
Ten seconds after this he awakes in a cave decorated like Halloween at Anthropologie. Ten seconds after this he stumbles onto a paved road, narrowly avoids getting hit by vehicles, and realizes things aren’t right. As he races off down the road, we pull back and get this:
1. This show is not wasting your time.
2. That bird’s going to hang around; we must proceed on the assumption its name is Buddy.
3. We lose half a dozen people in the pilot alone. If trends continue, they will be repainting that sign to five figures by the end of the first season.
Sheriff Abbie Mills gets the same economy in her introduction, during a diner chat with her partner Sheriff Clancy Brown, tossing exposition back and forth (he collects odd unsolved cases from the paper and should be watching his health; she’s headed for or maybe running away to Quantico, and steals French fries; that clergyman in the back desperately wants to overhear something and/or a French fry).
Sheriff Clancy Brown gives some loaded glad-eye to the Rev on his way out, but otherwise things seem to be idyllic in Sleepy Hollow, where nothing terrible ever happens!
Mostly! To be fair, sometimes you get beheaded and your young partner can only stare at the Headless Horseman ride into the night.
(In general, one doesn’t hire Clancy Brown for a part like this unless one hopes to get him back somehow; I expect we have some flashbacks or VO to look forward to.)
Abbie checks in with Sheriff John Cho to meet an in-custody Ichabod and see if he’s the gentleman who cut her partner’s head off. He isn’t – but he knows exactly who she means and describes him right down to the headless part, which is something he can already tell she wouldn’t have mentioned. And since Abbie knows what she saw, Captain Irving (I see you, show) lets her sit in on the interrogation.
I appreciate how neatly this shot establishes their relative positions. She’s on firmer footing in the situation, but has more to lose by admitting what she saw; he’s a prisoner at an obvious disadvantage, but has absolute conviction behind the story he’s telling
Though this scene is obviously taking care of a chunk of the time-travel explanation, Ichabod’s incredulity at the passage of time becomes folded into his other frustrations – he’s a professor-turned-soldier-turned-American sympathizer who’s baffled by the lay of the land, and getting no real answers, since almost everyone else in the room assumes he’s planting an insanity defense.
Almost everyone. Abbie still can’t believe any of this, but is determined to use whatever knowledge he has that can help her solve her case. She’s researched the cauterization angle as a way into the interrogation, and finally the long-suffering Captain Irving allows her to transport him and ask along the way.
Their introduction touches misogyny (“A female Lieutenant?” “...Not going to break character, huh”) and Nice Guy racism (when he asks about emancipation: “If you’re insinuating I endorse slavery, I’m offended.” “Wait, back up, you’re offended?”). On the other hand, he knows just what she’s holding back from her colleagues. By the time she’s ordering him into the car, they’ve established a prickly but functioning rapport that will last until she murders him for annoying her.
And though the script largely avoids becoming Kate and Leopold: The TV Show, there’s too much comic opportunity to let everything pass them by, and so we get a couple of eye-rolling remarks about trousers and colloquialisms, some gleeful fiddling with the automatic window, and an observation about the proliferation of Starbucks: “Is there a law?”
She tries her best to accept his story, but when she takes him on a detour to the cave and they discover George Washington’s Bible (actual thing) complete with notes about the Four Horsemen, she’s hit her credulity limit and calls No Way.
She’ll have to reevaluate that momentarily, though, since the town clergyman (also a relic of the 18th century) is currently chainbending to try to ward off the Horseman.
(Doesn’t work, but that was one hell of an effort, Reverend.)
Any worries that Sleepy Hollow isn’t in on its own joke can be directed here:
And any worries that Abbie will get busted still hauling Ichabod around are totally founded! They stop by the crime scene, where Abbie investigates the crime scene and discusses the implications of the murder with her superior and her colleague.
There’s something unusual here for network TV, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. What could it be? Whaaaaat could it be.
While trying to figure out car door handles, Ichabod gets another visit from Buddy that leads him to his wife’s grave. (Beharie totally nails, “A bird led you here. That’s great.”) But even worse than finding out his wife is dead? Finding out Abbie’s on her way out of town. Tom Mison turns on Romantic Lead Face while questioning why she’s so reluctant to investigate something she can’t explain. Doesn’t she know their fates are entwined? (They already signed for the back 13!)
In the mental institution, Abbie finally confides her secret: in high school, she and her sister were in the woods, where they saw four white trees and heard a voice, an experience that somehow overwhelmed them into blacking out, the sort of innocuous dread that’s more threatening for being so ordinary.
Her sister stuck to their story and has spent her life “in and out of places like these”; Abbie’s tried to forget, but she knows what it’s like to be unable to prove a thing you know, and there’s a reason she’s still hauling this revolutionary around.
She soon has even more reason, as she finds Sheriff Clancy Brown’s hidden cabinet full of unsolved mysteries – including her own – giving her plenty of non-Ichabod reasons to stay in town and investigate what’s tying them all together.
But will Captain Irving ever really believe her, even with evidence? Would she be safe if she confided in him? What does he really know? Can he be trusted?
Who can say.
Ichabod’s big reveal is more supernatural, as Buddy makes another visit to call him into the netherworld.
(For the ornithologically curious, I believe Buddy is a juvenile golden eagle. Ichabod being born on foreign soil must preclude him from deserving a more patriotic bird.)
Enjoy your second-best bird, Crane.
Katrina, his wife, has used the bird to summon him to the netherworld that holds her captive for coven reasons (she’s part of an ancient order dedicated to stopping this evil, because of course), and maybe to ask for a jacket or something, because her coven has pulled a costume prank on her.
She tells him the location of the Horseman’s head, which he has to obtain before the Horseman’s powers become so great that something awful happens during sweeps. Weirdly, that secret location is her very well-marked, explicitly-named grave topped with the Washington pyramid, which apparently none of the forces of evil thought to look into in the last 250 years.
Luckily, Abbie and a fake court order bail him out just in time to avoid sedation (he is so 130% into this sleight-of-hand rescue that his eyes turn into cartoon hearts), and they take Sheriff Clancy Brown’s extremely convenient George Washington map of supernatural activity and head for the graveyard.
Their only reinforcement: Sheriff John Cho, who promises to call in all hands, but is actually up to no good – he’s in league with the Horseman! (John Cho, how could you? It’s almost as if your involvement was never meant to go beyond the pilot!)
This shot might be my secret favorite from this episode, mainly for what it doesn’t show you: the Horseman, sitting in that wingback chair but avoiding detection for obvious reasons. This show is not going to miss a trick.
At the graveyard, it’s an action scene! The Horseman chases Ichabod, Abbie shoots the Horseman, John Cho chases Abbie (creepily promising to protect her – she nearly bites off his thumb, which takes care of that), Tom Mison does a very good job of showing that an occasional revolutionary soldier does not a trained badass make.
At last, the Horseman must face the dawn (daylight’s his only enemy! Daylight and George Washington) and escapes from a gunfight with two cops, which takes care of the credulity delay. Has this brought our heroes closer together?
Who can say.
As Captain Irving reluctantly deputizes them to investigate the Horseman, though he is very grumpy about it (perhaps he considers himself too old for this shit), Abbie mentions she’ll be dropping out of Quantico and staying in Sleepy Hollow now that she can get to the bottom of those four white trees for her own reasons.
(Meanwhile, the people on the bench had a fender bender or something and came into the Sheriff’s office, and the rest of their lives will be haunted by questions about that preserved head in the pickle jar the Captain was talking about.)
Ichabod, of course, is pleased to no end that Abbie’s sticking around. He tells Abbie that George Washington’s Bible insists they fight evil together for seven years (and a movie), with his Romantic Lead Face dialed to eleven so we know what's probably going to happen in the sexual-tension department around Year Five when they run out of horsemen.
Sadly, they’ll be taking that journey without John Cho, who gets his neck broken by the demon before he can spill the beans. When Abbie and Ichabod arrive, all that’s left is a mirror with a glimpse of a shadowy figure and four white trees.
And with the kind of line delivery that’s the entire reason you hire Clancy Brown, Sheriff Clancy Brown escorts us out of the episode with a VO reminder that vis-a-vis the pale horse scenario, the rider’s name was Death.
It’s likely no coincidence this pilot is reminiscent of The X-Files: this is a show made by TV and movie veterans who know by now which formulas are most likely to work. Producer Len Wiseman is best known for the Underworld vampire movies, in which Kate Beckinsale kicked everyone’s ass in this room and Michael Sheen flung himself topless over the edge of a CGI cliff during a sex scene for reasons no one understands, and producer Robert Orci spent time on Xena, Alias, and Fringe before committing to a vortex of co-writing and producing a series of soulless SF movies that cumulatively end up sort of sucking all good faith out the window. Let’s hope he hangs on to his small-screen sensibilities here.
Still, under the formula – an overarching mythos, the promised “army of evil” that should arrive more or less weekly, the reluctant stickler and her partner the believer who share secrets and some interpretable tension – there’s a genuine sense of fun, with the good-natured acceptance of the cheesiness under the premise that’s necessary to make this show fly. It can be solid cult television if executed well, and even if executed unevenly, the right combination of those elements can gather plenty of fandom steam. (Ichabod does not gaze at the Lieutenant.)
And not for nothing, Sleepy Hollow also has some of the dynamics that have made Elementary such a success in its first year, particularly a snarky and imperfect hero whose journey includes facing his assumptions, and a capable and sarcastic woman of color who is not going to hesitate to point those assumptions out, and also work hard to set her judgements aside and seek the truth, and also wrestle her own demons, and also leverage authority, and also have family concerns, and also Abbie Mills just has the potential to be really cool, okay? She could just be really cool. Don’t mess this up, show.
Though there are potential pitfalls (maintaining pacing and tone will be crucial and difficult, and also don’t mess up Abbie Mills), by and large, signs point to an entertaining season full of monsters of the week, oddball bonding, time-travel disconnects, creepy trees, a backstory that will endlessly retcon itself, and moments of shirtless captivity. And hey, if any of those elements falter, the show can always fall back on its first love, and let the Headless Horseman ride past his traffic sign.
Next week: the Horseman makes progress in his secret personal goal of sitting undetected in a every single wingback chair throughout the town of Sleepy Hollow.