I was very impressed with Fox’s pilot episode for its new fall series, Sleepy Hollow. While I can’t see it a becoming a primetime player at next year’s Emmys, it is chock full of the elements needed to hook an audience or, at least, this reviewer.
Here’s how Fox did it. Sleepy Hollow: how to start a TV series.
1) Elements of suspense
When a Headless Horseman roams around your sleepy little town at night carrying an ax that is so hot it cauterizes the necks it has just severed a head from there can’t help but be some suspense. A basic fear is introduced, as no one is immune to losing their head, except maybe our two heroes. Yet, as the episode develops, there is far more to this story than just a murderer on the loose. This is a killer with a purpose and a biblical one at that. To counter this evil, awoken from an icy slumber in present time is Ichabod Crane, the first witness and the one who has blood ties to the Headless Horseman. He will do everything in his power to stop the Headless Horseman and his brethren.
2) Intriguing Questions
As it’s supposed to, the pilot episode of Sleepy Hollow gives us many questions. Some are answered during the hour while others will be answered with future episodes. The Headless Horseman is far more than he seems. He has a branding on his hand the shape of an arrow, giving him exclusive rights to drop prices at Wal-Mart? Doubtful. More likely a group symbol for evil doers. The dead sheriff in the Village of Sleepy Hollow has tracked this occult secret for quite some time. And the Lieutenant, Abbie Mills, has a mysterious connection to the whole shebang. Abbie and her sister as teens had a supernatural experience, one involving four white trees and a skin colored demon-like figure. Talk about giving you (and me) the heebie-jeebies. She finds a key the Sherriff has kept hidden, which unlocks years of paper clippings and audio recordings of a mysterious occult. Further, the town priest was the same man during the Revolutionary War who helped freeze Ichabod to fight the dark side 250 years later.
3) A Cool Looking Villain
Ok, maybe just a little. Prior to being decapitated our villain had a head only his face was hidden behind a steel mask. Reminiscent of Jason from Friday the 13th, or Humongous from The Road Warrior, he’s bald, menacing and relentless. His mission: Armageddon.
4) Solid Acting
Honestly, I was expecting worse. But each character was admirably acted in Sleepy Hollow. The two main characters, Ichabod played by Tom Mison and Abbie played by Nicole Beharie have solid chemistry which is needed for this buddy series. The two are believable. Their chemistry is not a sexual but there is something there; they complement one another and bicker effectively like an old couple. The pilot was greatly assisted by John Cho (finally Harold is in a TV series, as Kumar had his stint on House) and great character actor Clancy Brown gave the show much respectability.
5) Something That Sticks
There is a scene near episode’s end that left me quite disturbed. In fact, the image has stayed with me to this very moment. I won’t give it away. I’m not that cruel. But if you watch it, you won’t look into a mirror the same again. Nightmares aside, a show with elements of horror must deliver. And although Sleepy Hollow is not terrifying, it needed to give something different than another show in a similar vein which never could be really scary – Grimm. Thankfully, in that one moment, Sleepy Hollow delivered.
Sleepy Hollow isn’t a serious drama; at least I didn’t interpret it that way. It contains an element of fun, of levity, of playfulness even in its darkest moments which keep the mood light. Co-writers of the new Star Trek reboot, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, were at work in Sleepy Hollow, giving it a similar feel. The show is also charming. Ichabod marvels at the changes in society, from power windows in cars to African-Americans out of slavery and females wearing trousers. The good thing about it; it is never overdone. We’re never brow-beaten with the jokes. The humor is honest and witty. Perhaps Ichabod’s British accent gives it a little more credibility, but it works nonetheless.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about my own personal fascination with Sleepy Hollow. My first introduction to Washington Irving’s 1820 short story came from none other than Walt Disney. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was an animated version of the classic and would play annually on the Sunday night closest to Halloween (check it out on YouTube, you won’t regret it). There are images from this film that have happily stayed with me for decades, although I don’t think I thought that way when I was a little Boyd. The Headless Horseman’s shrill laugh, his red eyed monstrosity of a horse, and throwing his flaming pumpkin head through the bridge at Ichabod all happily haunt me to this day. There is something to be said about being terrorized in the right way. It is something enjoyable to many of us and took place when many of us were kids. Up until recently, stories weren’t as strictly sanitized for children as they are today. I grew up in a time when a PG rating for movies was liberal; it covered a wide range of atrocities young people could watch. One of the first movies I ever saw was Alien. Did I really turn out so bad?
Probably. The mind is like underwear. Once it’s stretched, it never goes back to its original form.