Monday, September 16, 2013

Pilot Review: Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow (Mondays at 9:00 on Fox)

There will probably be no in-between with Sleepy Hollow: you will be on board with it, or you won't. This isn't the type of show that you'll need to give three or five episodes to decide if you want to commit to watching it. No, you will know by the end of this zany pilot whether or not the show is for you. I fall firmly into the "yes" camp.

To start with, this adaptation of the Washington Irving classic story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" has almost nothing in common with its source material, aside from cosmetic things like setting, character names (this incarnation of Ichabod Crane is about as far from the original characterization of the bumbling, shy schoolmaster as one could get)... and, obviously, the Headless Horseman. In this version, written by Roberto Orici & Alex Kurtzman, both former writers on Fringe and Hawaii Five-0, and Phillip Iscove, Ichabod (Tom Mison) is a turncoat British spy fighting in George Washington's army. He decapitates a mysterious, masked horseman before dying himself. Ichabod awakes 250 years later in contemporary Sleepy Hollow, New York without any clue of what has happened. The Horseman returns with him and begins hacking off heads with a heated axe. Ichabod comes into police custody and tells his story of occultism and the Apocalypse, and everyone thinks him insane... except for Lieutenant Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie, 42), a young police officer with her own storied past.

This Sleepy Hollow is a crazy mishmash of so many genres (fantasy, mystery, horror, science fiction) converging on a familiar tale made new again. In most situations, I'm a literary purist. I have a degree in English, so it's kind of a requirement for me. But in this case, I honestly didn't mind the changes the creators, along with director Len Wiseman (Hawaii Five-0, the Underworld films), made. The bones of Irving's story are still here: the out-of-place Crane, the idyllic setting, the horrific ghost villain. They've just expanded it into a whole world and brought it into the present. The conspiracy at the show's heart makes sense in the framework of both the short story and the series, proving that not all literary adaptations are inferior; sometimes, they're just different but complementary entities. I lost myself in the bizarre world presented by Sleepy Hollow, a world where the Headless Horseman wields a machine gun and priests have mystical powers. It's a world that mixes elements of American history, witchcraft, religion, and even humor to create an outrageous conspiracy mystery.

It's the humor in the Sleepy Hollow pilot that really stands out and sets the show apart. It manages to come across as earnest without being too serious. The pilot's best scenes, actually, are the comical interactions between Abbie and Ichabod as he adjusts to this unfamiliar world (highlights of Mison's performance include a scene spent playing with power windows in a police car and another confronting Mills on her "emancipation"), and between Ichabod and his new surroundings. The chemistry Beharie and Mison share is palpable and totally fun; they are a strong team, and the show would be smart to focus on their relationship a bit more than the mythology of the apocalyptic conspiracy. They are a joy to watch and manage to anchor the show in a kind of reality; their relationship feels genuine despite the ridiculous circumstances surrounding them.

When all is said and done, I can't say that I have many complaints. The direction is fresh and fun, including some flashy camera tricks (one in particular comes to mind when we get a POV shot of a decapitated character), and the script is strong: witty dialogue, complex world-building, believable characters, even a fun twist or two. The performances are strong all around, especially considering how green the two leads are and that the show rests firmly on their shoulders. This is just a really fun, twisted way to spend an hour, and I can't wait to see what's to come and how the story and characters grow. A really exciting way to kick off the fall season.

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