IN TWEET: THE NEW HEADLESS HORSEMAN OF THE APOCALYPSE DRAMA “SLEEPY HOLLOW” IS OFF TO A STRONG START.
Every so often, a completely preposterous series concept turns out to be one of those rare pleasant surprises. Based on the sometimes dark and sometimes rollicking pilot, SLEEPY HOLLOW on FOX could very well be one of them. This isn’t the next LOST or even the next BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and, truth be told, it doesn’t aspire to be like either of those iconic shows. It’s barely half as deep as the former and not nearly as witty as the latter. Still, SLEEPY HOLLOW is immensely charming (even with the frequent beheadings) and a heck of a lot of fun.
The pilot opens with a pitched battle between Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and a masked Hessian during the Revolutionary War. In short order, Crane lops off the head of his foe and is next seen rising from the thawed earth in a dank cave (see video at the end of this post). The twist: he has been in a flash-frozen slumber for more than 200 years and wakes up in present-day Westchester County, NY (played by various North Carolina locations). Why stick to one Washington Irving classic when you can borrow from two?
After almost becoming a pavement pancake courtesy of modern vehicular traffic, Crane eventually ends up as the prime suspect in a twin beheading. One of the victims is town Sheriff August Corbin (Clancy Brown). His protégé, Deputy Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), was there when he was murdered and knows the truth: a headless horseman is the real killer. Problem is, she can’t make any sense of what she has witnessed and initially refuses to corroborate Crane’s plea of innocence. There’s more to her reluctance here than simple denial but I won’t spoil too much of her intriguing backstory.
Things move at a brisk pace throughout the opening hour and, thankfully, we’re not subjected to one of those draggy tales of “no one believes I pulled a Rip Van Winkle and am really 200+ years old.” Abbie eventually comes around, but not before most of the supporting cast is offed, one friend betrays her and a well-pickled severed head is unearthed by Crane. By the time we reach the end of the pilot, it's clear that this is going to be less about a time traveling Revolutionary War vet and more about Satanic beasties, battling witch covens and four horseman you won’t see at any rodeo.
Some of SLEEPY HOLLOW is silly. There’s the atmospheric storm effects that look like they were lifted from an old Universal horror film (you know, where thunder and lighting happen simultaneously), an unintentionally hilarious scene where a priest goes all Jedi Yoda and a dated Starbucks joke. Still, even with these lapses, the show never loses steam. SLEEPY HOLLOW is on a mission to entertain and doesn’t waste too much time lugging around plot or dialogue baggage that might weigh it down. It’s also not afraid to go dark and scary when appropriate. Nice touches and clever visual flourishes balance out the chop chop; like one beheading shown from the perspective of the beheaded…even after their head falls off.
Equally well handled is the fact that Crane is now living in a very different world from the one he knew. We are spared an assault of non-stop “wow, what’s that doohickey” prattle. Instead, we get subtle and endearing moments, like Crane’s inability to unlock a car door, or the terrific scene where he first meets Abbie. His reaction to seeing a black female police officer is priceless and their banter about slavery and historical perspective is executed with deft skill and not a whiff of preachy cheese.
As Ichabod Crane, Tom Mison is well cast and quirk free. He’s not channeling Johnny Depp (thankfully) or any other previous iteration of the character. His Crane is smart, assured and brave to a fault. Mison is handsome (but not too pretty) and deftly balances the cocksure bravado of a high-ranking military officer with the slack-jawed awe of a true fish out of water. Mison plays the part with effortless charm and spot-on earnestness. Camp and vamp would sink this ship and he never falls into that trap, nor do the writers.
The real find here is Nicole Beharie. Like Mison, she knows that sometimes less is more and avoids every scenery chewing trap that would trip up a lesser talent. You are with her from the start and she's a pleasure to watch. Not only is she is exactly right for the part, she also happens to NOT be a hot blond chick. It’s beyond refreshing to see a series kick a tired character crutch to the curb and opt, instead, to cast based on talent. In fact, the only place a tony Westchester, NY town this diverse exists is on SLEEPY HOLLOW. That's a shame, really. More network shows should wake up, smell the proverbial coffee and adopt similar color-blind casting practices.
Considering all of the ways SLEEPY HOLLOW could have mucked it up, that it’s this good out of the gate bodes well for the future. It could have been a weak disappointment like GRIMM or REVOLUTION but it isn’t. The “coming this season” trailer at the end of the hour more than hints at the supernatural horrors ahead. Let’s hope SLEEPY HOLLOW continues to keep it’s eyes on the prize and doesn’t stray down the primrose path to becoming an overstuffed bore like my former favorite ONCE UPON A TIME did last season. So far, I’m all in.
SLEEPY HOLLOW airs Mondays at 9PM E/P on FOX.
RONTHINK GRADE: A-