September 17, 2013

THE SKED Fall Pilot Report: FOX’s “Sleepy Hollow”


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SLEEPY HOLLOW:  Monday 9PM on FOX – If Nothing Else Is On…

For what’s supposed to be an original series, SLEEPY HOLLOW feels awfully familiar.  Part of it, of course, is that writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are doing a spin on the Washington Irving classic about Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman (and although the title doesn’t say so, on Irving’s Rip Van Winkle as well).  But the show is also parts National Treasure, X-Files and the supernatural procedurals that have followed it (including Kurtzman & Orci’s own Fringe), Buffy, and every detective show that features a brilliant but off-kilter sleuth teamed with one who’s by-the-book.  It’s practically a wikipedia of fantasy-suspense tropes, and it’s going to need to find its own identity if it wants to stand out.

To be fair, Sleepy Hollow is somewhat hard to judge based on its first hour, because it’s essentially a “premise pilot,” meaning one that’s concerned with setting the stage for the series–and, in this case, its mythology–to follow.  Only the last couple of minutes of the pilot provide much sense of where the show will be going on a week-to-week basis, so any judgments here have to be somewhat premature.  Nevertheless, the episode does establish the main characters and situation.

Here’s how Irving described his Ichabod Crane :  “He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together.  His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green, glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew.”  Naturally, apart from the “tall” part, the show’s Crane (Ton Mison) is unrecognizable from that description, looking rather like he recently stepped off the set of a body-deodorant commercial.  That’s understandable, but it also makes for a protagonist much blander and less interesting than the one Irving created.  This Ichabod began as an Oxford professor of history who moved to the colonies during the Revolutionary War era, converted to the American cause and married Katrina (Katia Winter), who he didn’t know was a witch.  During the battle of Valley Forge, he ran up against a mysterious, brutal mercenary and, fatally wounded, he managed to cut off the soldier’s head… which, as it turns out, wasn’t enough to kill him.

When Ichabod next returns to consciousness, it’s 2013, and a killer missing a certain part of his anatomy is marauding through the Sleepy Hollow countryside.  Intrepid but initially skeptical cop Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) needs help tracking down the killer, and comes to realize that Crane’s seemingly crazy rants about the horsemen of the apocalypse and the end of the world are all too true, and also that the former Sheriff had left behind hundreds of files (just about 7 years’ worth, coincidentally the run of a successful network series) concerning unexplained deaths and disappearances in the area.  Despite the head-shaking dubiousness of her Captain, who happens to be named Irving (Orlando Jones), Abbie and Crane will have to team up.  (And, of course, Abbie has her own repressed childhood connection to the goings-on in Sleepy Hollow.)

The show clearly intends to follow what’s become a standard semi-procedural template, with most episodes involving an unsolved case-of-the-week amid serialized content about the Horseman that will occasionally take over the lead (especially around sweeps and the end of the season).  The pilot, though, is all about the mythology, which includes such props as the Book of Revelation, a bird with magic powers and a map personally drawn by George Washington.

Sleepy Hollow is easy enough to take, but there’s nothing very exciting about it.  Director Len Wiseman (he originated the Underworld movie series, and is also responsible for last year’s disastrous remake of Total Recall) provides plenty of foggy atmosphere, and Beharie and Mixon are a pleasant mismatched team (apparently no romance is planned for them, at least for a while, since Ichabod’s wife Katrina is still around as a dream visitor).  The pilot kills off one or two more seeming regulars than one might expect, but the downside of those surprises is that there’s hardly anyone left for the series, aside from Jones, who sputters with exasperation like every other long-suffering TV police captain ever written.  The script gets surprisingly little mileage out of Ichabod adjusting to 21st-century America, once it’s taken care of the fact that his new partner is an African-American woman and inserted a Starbucks joke.  The dialogue, instead, is loaded with exposition.  Kurtzman and Orci have been down variations of this road so many times before–apart from Fringe, their writing/producing fingerprints are also on the Transformers and rebooted Star Trek series, Cowboys & Aliens and Alias–that they seem to be proceeding more by rote than inspiration.

The show has a fairly good launching spot on Monday nights, in the slot that worked for The Following last spring (that show will return at midseason).  Like Following, it won’t catch The Voice, but should be able to score well against Dancing With the Stars and the CBS sitcoms, and while Beauty & the Beast is a direct genre competitor, that show barely registers in the ratings.  So despite its medium level heat, Sleepy Hollow could hold on.  It should be recalled that Fringe essentially remade itself during its first season into a very different–and far better–show than its pilot had indicated.  So Kurtzman and Orci have pulled this off before, and perhaps with time this horseman will really gallop.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."