The Sleepy Hollow TV series has always been rather shocking. First we were shocked that someone would set this spooky 18th century story in the-day. Then we were shocked when the first season turned out to be fantastic. We were shocked yet again when the show suddenly turned terrible in its sophomore season. And now I’m shocked that season three has somehow gotten even worse.
It’s true—somehow, despite fixing most of season two’s obvious, glaring problems, Sleepy Hollow is even less fun to watch than it was last year. While problems that plagued the second season have been solved, its replaced them with now problems that may be less irksome, but are much more boring.
To understand why watching Sleepy Hollow has gone from a sublime to delight to pure agony in three quick seasons, you have to begin with what made the show a surprise hit: namely, the perfect, platonic chemistry between Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane and Nicole Beharie’s 21st century detective Abbie Mills. The two were an odd couple for obvious reasons, but they complemented each other perfectly—they were both smart and capable, and they instantly respected each other’s talents. You don’t know how refreshing it was to see two TV partners whose relationship wasn’t constantly riddled with contrived conflict. They were equals whether they were fighting the forces of evil or hanging out in the pub.
And the forces of evil were pretty compelling, too. Ichabod and Mills faced off against the demon Moloch, to stop the apocalypse—a standard setting for genre fiction. But by recasting the Headless Horseman as the Horseman of Death, the show gave the centuries-old Sleepy Hollow story new life (no pun) and a fascinating bent. When the first season finale revealed that Abbie and Ichabod’s comrade Henry was in fact the Horseman of War and Ichabod’s long-thought-dead son, we all couldn’t wait for season two to arrive.
When season two finally did arrive, everything changed… and for the worst. The apocalypse turned into a melodramatic family drama where, instead of fighting the forces of evil, Ichabod had spat after spat—with his evil son, his witch wife (who left him for the Headless Horseman), and even with Abbie, who wished he would get his shit together. Instead of doing that, Ichabod spent all his time being frantic or brooding, and his relationship with Abbie was effectively sidelined.
Meanwhile, virtually all the villains turned from fascinatingly evil to boring whiners. The Headless Horseman, once terrifying and unstoppable, morphed into Ichabod’s former romantic rival and a guy who was only a bit of a jerk. As for the supporting cast, Abbie’s formerly Linda-Hamilton-in-Terminator 2 sister somehow lost all of her emotional baggage and started falling for a new character named Hawley, a rogue-ish magical artifacts dealer who was impressively unlikable. You could always count on Hawley to bring the show to a screeching halt.
So to sum up, in season two, the show lost its core appeal—the Ichabod/Abbie relationship—and turned the show’s formerly frightening, fascinating villains into dull whiners. It had somehow managed to transform all its strengths into weaknesses. Fans were justifiably irritated, and made their displeasure known. The creators, in turn, promised to fix these problems. Which they did… technically.
While Sleepy Hollow promised to renew its focus on Ichabod and Abbie, it scrapped almost everything else about its plot. All the suddenly overwrought, repetitive Moloch/Horseman/Crane family nonsense was gone; now Ichabod and Abbie faced Pandora (she of the titular box) who wanted to summon her generically evil god/lover to Earth. Hawley was thankfully jettisoned, while Joe Corbin, son of Abbie’s former mentor August (played by Clancy Brown in the pilot) was added; he at least has a reasonable connection to the main characters, and is the height of charm (at least compared to Hawley).
But what the show forgot to do was make any of these new characters interesting. Yes, Joe is likable, but his entire role in season three has been as Abbie’s sister’s bland romantic interest, while the two investigate B-plots week after week—few of which have anything to do with the A-plot. Pandora started out enigmatic, but it quickly became apparently that beneath the mystery, her evil plan was generic and underwritten. Her dark master, once summoned to Earth, has even less distinct about him, in that his plan consists entirely of being evil. And he’s not even that good at it. The bad guys of the Power Rangers had more thought-out motivation.
The new characters are hardly the only problem. The show has lost its ability to be funny or charming, although Tim Mison and Nicole Beharie try their damnedest. Earlier fan favorite scenes—like Ichabod having a heart-to-heart with an On-Star operator, or throwing his modern pistol down after firing a single bullet (he assumed they could only fire one!), or even his trip to the ridiculous Found Fathers-themed restaurant he visited in season two—are missing. It’s not that the show is dour now, but it never manages to make me smile. Just like its new villains, the show has become utterly nondescript, which is actually impressive when you remember it started out by revealing the Headless Horseman was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
As for the second season’s biggest mistake, the lost relationship between Ichabod and Abbie, the show fixed it in the sense that it put a bandaid on a bullet hole. Abbie and Ichabod now spend most of each episode apart (last week’s episode was especially egregious in this respect). Sometimes, Ichabod gets stuck in flashbacks (where he’s hanging with Betsy Ross—a top-secret Revolutionary War spy, who also manages to be dull. Most of the time, Abbie is hanging out at her new job at the FBI with her new, indistinguishable colleagues, who all keep getting drawn into the world of the supernatural. It’s as if someone decided that what Ichabod and Abbie really needed was to hang out with other people.
And please don’t get me started on whatever the hell is going on with Abbie, and that symbol she’s begun worshipping. Nicole Beharie is an excellent, charismatic actress—but asking her to pretend to be worshipping a geometric pattern on a barn wall is asking for the impossible.
Everything about Sleepy Hollow is still wrong, and it’s somehow even more wrong than it was last season. At least last season, the show made me angry that it was wasting its talent and squandering its good will; now the show is dull—just crushingly dull—and all I feel is bored. Now that more than half of the run of the series is officially “bad,” I’ve lost faith that it can actually improve, and I’ve lost interest in watching it at all.
It sucks, because the first season of Sleepy Hollow is so good! It’s so fun! It’s actually pretty fascinating, especially in the way it took these crazy, fantastic supernatural battles, and then explored the real-world consequences of them! But since season one ended, everything that made the show so good has been systematically hacked away—removed like the head from a particular horseman. That Horseman was forced to abandon Sleepy Hollow, because the show was so boring. I’ve been forced to do the same.