Sep 16, 2013

Sleepy Hollow: “Pilot”

By Josh Oakley


Here’s what you’re getting into if you watch the pilot episode of Sleepy Hollow (and you should): there’s a scene that features the Headless Horseman (or Death from the Book of Revelations) wielding a shotgun while trying to retrieve his head from the grave of a witch. Sleepy Hollow throws almost every imaginable element at the screen (I didn’t even mention demons or a time-travelling Ichabod Crane, an old friend of George Washington), but, miraculously, never feels slapped together. Showrunners Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci previously ran Fringe, another genre procedural that was able to take the inspiration of The X-Files and create a unique, purposeful vision. Hollow trades that larger thematic content for absolute insanity, a go-for-broke take on almost every pulpy genre imaginable. There’s corruption among the police and threats of apocalypse. Nothing in the pilot of Sleepy Hollow makes a lick of sense, but the show is able to utilize that quality as charm, rather than dull plodding.

In the late 18th century, Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) betrayed his home country to fight on the side of the Americans in the Revolutionary War. After decapitating the man who needs no head or introduction, Crane awakes in modern day. He quickly partners up with Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), who reveals her own history with demons and being considered insane. The rest of the police force doesn’t believe Crane, understandably, until an episode-ending firefight between two officers and the Headless Horseman. In the midst of all of this is:
  • A visit to Crane from his wife, Katrina. She turns out to be a witch (when her tombstone says she was burned for witchcraft, the show immediately confirms that, no, the townspeople weren’t incorrect. This is Sleepy Hollow after all). Katrina is trapped in some sort of spirit world.
  • Early in the episode the Horseman kills Mills’ partner. It turns out, of course, that the partner had been working on the show’s central mythology for decades. He kept audio recordings and a good deal of files. A montage is spent with the material that works to color the edges of the mythology and confirm that an event from Mills’ past was not a hallucination.
  • As if you couldn’t guess, the town’s priest is immortal. His mission was to protect the Headless Horseman’s head, but the holy man loses his own dome for the trouble.
  • The police chief (played by Orlando Jones), gives a sideways glance would be enough to put him behind bars if only the others could see this episode (The charge? Collusion with a horseman of the apocalypse)

I have described about two-thirds, at most, of the events in the pilot episode, which makes it a marvel that the hour never feels overstuffed. The show is well paced by virtue of its madness; it never calms down long enough for the audience to realize just how much is going on. Sometimes the reveals elicit laughter, but you’re never quite laughing at the show, even when you are. Sleepy Hollow is a program that understands itself and knows exactly what you’re thinking throughout; it knows when to pull back (slightly) and when to go full blast into the mind of a hyperactive seven-year-old. The pilot is organized to utilize the time it has in order to give every basic element over to the audience. Few things are fleshed out here, but that doesn’t matter when the hysteria levels are this high. The episodes to come can elaborate on the various facets of the show’s world.

When you strip away all of the extra ingredients thrown onto the police procedural template, the basic parts still stand fairly sturdy. The two leads are excellent, especially Beharie, who is wise to never hit her incredulousness too hard, as to distract from the fun the show is trying to have. Her quips, especially when Crane asks if she’s been emancipated, are excellently dispensed, and her chemistry with Mison is strong from their first scene together. Mison himself is quite good as well, playing the eye-rolling, wry Crane with just enough humanity to be understandable on an emotional level. Then again, Sleepy Hollow is less concerned with pathos than thrills. That sounds like a detriment, and could be in the long run, but it stands out here. Most shows attempt to eek out unearned sentiment to establish their worlds, but Hollow is comfortable displaying the premise, presenting the characters, and saying, “go”.

Grade: A-

Miscellaneous:
  • The use of “Sympathy for the Devil” is a little silly the first time around, but works well tied back into the end. The second use works to undercut the seriousness of the voiceover threatening the end of the world.
  • The best shot of the episode: a man’s head, partially out of frame; the camera pans to his body on the other side of the room.
  • I guess I should admit that I have a soft spot for the trope of “WHAT IS THIS SORCERY YOU CALL “LIGHTBULBS”?” I loved Thor, you guys.
  • Clever to use the Book of Revelations to commit yourself to seven years on the air, Sleepy Hollow. Honestly, I’m a bit worried about you lasting past October, especially with a Monday time slot.
  • Much of the episode is just goofy fun, but that demon effect at the end, as the beast moved by shifting through space, was genuinely unsettling. The jump scare that ended that bit was also well done.

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