'Sleepy Hollow' Pilot Review: The Classic Story Has Been Updated For Modern Audiences
Sleepy Hollow is basically a mess through one episode. Washington Irving's classic short story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," has been updated for modern audiences. Modernity mandates throwing one too many ingredients into the pot. Executives want to stand out. Storytellers want to stand out. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Making an absolute decision about Sleepy Hollow after one episode is impossible.
Sleepy Hollow's first episode is a classic premise pilot. The writers crammed in a lot of story and beats into 41 or 42 minutes of TV. The "Pilot" is full of flashbacks, intrigue, "twists," mythology and world-building. The heroine of the series is Abbie, a lieutenant and aspiring federal agent, and she's more like Ichabod Crane than she'd like. Ichabod Crane's been transported 250 years in time to present day America after the Headless Horseman woke up from his watery slumber. Ichabod seems crazy since he babbles about General George Washington, a Headless Horseman, the Revolutionary War, enslavement and the abolitionist movement, and no one believes him but Abbie. Abbie watched her sheriff, and partner, get murdered by a being without a head. She can't tell anyone what she truly saw because that'd be crazy. The Headless Horseman isn't the lone crazy thing she's seen. As a girl she was in a forest with her sister when four white trees appeared. The girls blacked out. Her sister lost her mind, and Abbie's tried to get on with her life. Ichabod's babblings are as crazy as what Abbie remembers. She feels protective of Crane and battles her new boss for his involvement in the case.
Sleepy Hollow's first episode is quite polished and professional. Orci and Kurtzman have their names on nearly as many shows as J.J. Abrams. Those gentlemen know how to write to begin a series. The story of the first episode unfolds smoothly and an idea of what the series will be weekly is neatly laid out. The Sheriff, portrayed by Clancy Brown, is the only other man in Sleepy Hollow intent on solving the town's lingering mysteries. A key scene early on is Abbie's playful teasing of August's dedication to the job even when off the clock. After August's death, Abbie looks through old case files while listening to his recorded documentation of what he believes and what he wants to solve. Abbie wanted to leave the town for Quantico but staying in Sleepy Hollow is personally important. By staying she can honor her boss' life and help her sister understand and get rid of the demons.
Ichabod Crane plays as sidekick in the "Pilot." Half the fun of watching Sleepy Hollow will be the 'fish-out-of-the-water' element. There's a scene in which he's riding in a police cruiser and utterly taken by the automatic windows (the fish-out-of-water stuff basically like the second act of Thor, or, well, any fish-out-of-water story you've watched or read). The character writing's strong overall. Ichabod and Abbie are well-defined. The boss is a bit one-dimensional, but the developing story should lead to further development for that character. Tom Mison's terrific as Ichabod Crane. His accent is thick and distinct; his mannerisms and reactions to what Crane sees around feel authentic.
Less stable would be the mythology and world of the series. The mythology is a mess. Hollywood, both the movie and television business, bought up a bunch of updated versions of classic stories and found success a few years ago. If something works for one studio, other studios will follow. Classic stories are classics not because of convolution but because of simplicity. Ichabod Crane cut off the head of Death, aka the headless horseman, while on the verge of death. Crane's witch wife linked him with the headless horseman so that the horseman, one of the four of the apocalypse, wouldn't succeed in bringing ancient evil everywhere (or something). His wife, Katrina, was burnt at the stake. Of course, Katrina can exchange incredibly helpful exposition to Ichabod from beyond the grave, in a sort of bleak limbo that looks like the set of Silent Hill, about the link between Crane, the Horseman, the bible, ancient evils, etc. The mythological nonsense is part of the horseman's goal to retrieve his head, one of the few holdovers from Irving's classic story.
I don't crave more mythology from Sleepy Hollow than maybe two scenes per the first and last acts. Sleepy Hollow seems more like Elementary than Grimm, mostly because of the male-female dynamic. Perhaps a better comparison is Bones, which airs before Sleepy Hollow. August's case files will carry the series through a full season, if successful. The Headless Horseman can't murder in the daylight. Audiences won't have to deal with the Horseman weekly, I presume. The Horseman is another challenge for the series. He's very, very uninteresting. Making a murderous headless horseman interesting is difficult, but I think Washington Irving did all right.
The most important element of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the town's haunting atmosphere. Episode one dwells on the mythology and establishment and definition of the characters. Les Wiseman's direction is stylistic, but he didn't make the town a character. Sunnydale's a character in Buffy. Los Angeles is a character in ANGEL. Sleepy Hollow's the name of the show, but its lifeless as an active setting, and character, in the series. The town's the key.