“Sleepy Hollow” 9/16/2013 (spoilers): Death Wields a Mean Shotgun

Nicole Beharie, Tom Mison, Sleepy Hollow

She’s a medium-town sheriff with FBI dreams. He’s a 250-year-old Minuteman. They fight crime!

With a swing of the axe and a shotgun blast into the air, Fox brazenly kicked off the 2013-2014 fall TV season Monday night with our first new series, Sleepy Hollow. From the early ads its simple but silly premise — Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horsemen, ripped from Washington Irving’s short story and transported to the World of Tomorrow (i.e., today) — felt to me like another uninspired Hollywood reboot, scraping the bottom of the public-domain intellectual-property barrel.

If you don’t mind the occasional hour of loony, far-fetched “popcorn TV”, you can do plenty of fun things with barrel scrapings.

If you already have plans to watch the pilot on your own time and would prefer to be surprised, please allow this courtesy spoiler alert to signal troubled times ahead. For those who had no time for this kind of rousing Fox nonsense, please allow me this opportunity to see if I can properly represent a streamlined chronology of tonight’s outlandish events. If you thought this series would be a thirteen-episode live-action version of the Disney 1949 cartoon or a crass cannibalization of the 1999 Burton/Depp rendition, this series’ chefs (including four credited writers and action-flick director Len Wiseman) have thrown handfuls of other chewable ingredients into the cauldron.

That being said, our story so far:

250 years ago, General George Washington charged obedient soldier Ichabod Crane (British thespian Tom Mison) with the task of confronting a peculiar assassin during a big battle near the town of Sleepy Hollow, NY. In the moderately epic battle sequence that opens the pilot, the slo-mo bedlam of Minutemen versus Redcoats is a mere backdrop as Our Hero confronts a silent assassin, creepily masked and armed with blades. 18th-century Jason Voorhees leaves Crane reeling from an ugly chest-slashing, but Crane — before passing out — decapitates his foe with a single stroke, because it’s just that easy, especially when you’re mortally wounded.

Crane’s wife, Katrina, drags her dying husband to the nearest medical tent and shares a secret with him: she’s a witch. We learn she’s one of many on this New World career track, all of whom are divided into two camps — one Jedi, one Sith. Or whatever their equivalent appellations will be. Reams of exposition crammed into this episode, but the names of these rival gangs were saved for a future episode. We’re also told that Sleepy Hollow knew about this, and held witch trials and executions for decades, well into the 1810s or so. Sure, Salem’s infamous trials only lasted fifteen months, but Sleepy Hollow’s worked, dagnabbit!

Anyway: the Wicked Witches apparently summoned this assassin, who’s no mere mortal — he’s Death incarnate, charter member of the Four Horsemen. Because Western literature cannot contain so many horsemen by mere coincidence alone. There must be a correlation; thus, there is now.

Katrina’s big reveal, and an odd old priest looming over him, are the last images Crane sees in his time.

Fast-forward to today: the “village” of Sleepy Hollow today is a small town where nothing dramatic ever happens, even with a population of 144,000…which, curiously, is a figure that pops up in the Book of Revelations a few times in the context of head counts. (In our world the population of the real Sleepy Hollow, NY, is around 9,900. I look forward to finding out what major industrial concern influenced this exponential growth in their timeline.)

And speaking of head counts: Death returns, just as decapitated as he was centuries ago, but feeling as spry as ever. In short order he racks up three murders in the same method without batting an eyelash, for he has none. Gone now are a random farmer we never met; a Catholic preacher with either telekinesis or Catholic magic powers, who bears a striking resemblance to the one that presided over Crane’s deathbed; and special guest Clancy Brown as a policeman. I was excited to see Brown pop in, and shattered when I sensed his imminent departure.

Brown’s partner is our main character — Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie, last seen as Mrs. Robinson in 42), who’s supposed to be leaving next week for her big career move down to Quantico with the FBI. Between her partner’s death and the beheaded killer she sees galloping away from the scene of the crime on a pale horse with radioactive eyes, it’s no surprise that she sets aside her hopes and dreams for the good of the series and the town, in that order.

Fortunately she finds herself a new partner: Crane, mysteriously alive and arisen from a makeshift burial site in a nearby cave strewn with occult props. After one round of interrogation, one aced polygraph test, one aborted trip to the town sanitarium, one successful trip to said sanitarium, one montage in which Abbie discovers her partner’s secret filing cabinet of town witch-related backstory, one return to Crane’s burial cave to retrieve General Washington’s thirty-pound Bible with a Revelations handily bookmarked, one unexplained breakout from a police car, and several rounds of bickering (all of which the sardonic Crane wins), Crane accumulates just enough brownie points for Abbie to take his side and finagle a stay of incarceration from her stodgy commander (MadTV‘s Orlando Jones) so he can assist with the weirdness at hand — for the good of the series and the town, in that order.

From there events are a mishmash of crazy-town elements thrown at us from all sides:

* Clancy Brown’s secret files include tape recordings, so we can still hear his authoritative voice and pine for his days as Justice League Unlimited‘s brilliant Lex Luthor.

* Other special guest John Cho is a fellow officer who seems like such a nice John Cho character till he telegraphs his allegiance to Death and has to be busted.

* Crane has a dream that his wife Katrina, despite having a headstone of her own, isn’t really dead, but shunted into a mysterious magical dimension of unexplained nature, though probably evil-based. As if he needed even more motivation to drive him.

* Crane reads a random passage from Revelations 11 out of context and becomes convinced that he and Abbie are the two witnesses described therein. He stops short of reading about the part where they manifest tremendous powers but are eventually murdered by the Beast. I suppose they have to save something for season two.

* The background orchestra thinks the commanding officer is evil. So far he’s inscrutable, but TV orchestras are usually a good judge of character.

* There are magical blackbirds. They mean something.

In the episode’s climax, Crane and Abbie use her partner’s secret town map to locate and dig up the Horseman’s severed head, now a still-moving skull that someone encased in a jar and buried in a local cemetery for a rainy day. It just so happens to be the Horseman’s MacGuffin for reasons unknown. On his way to the big showdown, the Horseman stops at police HQ, stocks up on modern artillery with Deputy Cho’s help, and shows up heavily armed and undeniably more dangerous. Miraculously, other policemen show up at the scene, and see the Headless Horseman for themselves, and corroborate Abbie’s story with her superiors. I’m relieved this means Crane doesn’t have to spend the next twenty-one episodes flummoxed and crying in exasperation, “Why won’t anyone believe us?”

How does anyone survive the battle against the immortal Horseman, Death himself, against whom gunfire and brute whacking have no effect? His weakness: the sun. When it rises in the middle of their fight scene as a saving-grace copout — brightening from twilight to It’s a Sunshine Day in literally ten seconds flat — the Horseman thinks twice and flees on his Bad Horse. As far as we can tell, his jarred skull remains in custody and did not catch fire in those same sun rays.

…and that was just the pilot. In sum we have buddy-cop partners as different as night and day; a supernatural baddie, with promises of more effects-based villains ahead; dialogue at which I laughed in the correct places; a time-displaced hero who doesn’t immediately mistake cars for demons (glad to see that cliché skipped); and a small starter cast we can get to know, instead of throwing twenty new characters at once and expecting us to care about any one of them.

Parts of it are blatantly ludicrous, even allowing for familiar tropes. Their use of Scripture is a tad shaky, albeit still firmer than the average Hollywood production. In general, though, as overseen by Wiseman (Underworld; Live Free or Die Hard), the zippy action pieces, the grandiose elaborations upon the original mythos (what iotas there were of one), and the two capable lead performances combine into a package goofy yet charismatic enough to make me wonder what they’ll try to pull next.

I’m in for now, but if Brom Bones shows up next week as a zombie, I’m out.

3 responses

  1. Thanks for the heads-up. Now that Breaking Bad is coming to an end…

    I was surprised by this one. Kids don’t even read this story in school anymore or even know who Washington Irving is. Maybe next time his friend Rip will show up and they’ll go bowling!


    • See, I was thinking they could push the connections to Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad even further so we could work our way up to a crossover with The Wind in the Willows, but I guess I can settle for the esteemed Mr. Van Winkle instead. 😀


  2. Pingback: Waking up in Sleepy Hollow | Stars in Her Eye

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