I approached the first episode of the new version of Sleepy Hollow with genuine interest and reasonable expectations: well-reviewed in the US and already renewed by Fox for a second season after just three episodes, I was intrigued to know just how they would be able to expand a short story by Washington Irving about one man facing off against a ghostly headless horseman in the 18th century into a sufficiently robust foundation for an ongoing weekly series that could last for up to seven years.
The answer to that one appears to be taking the aforementioned headless horseman as but one aspect of a bigger whole, the vanguard of the end of the world which also involves the Book of Revelations, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, the Horn’d Beast himself, and two rival covens of witches – one good, one evil – fighting over the outcome. Into this mix is thrust Ichabod Crane (time travelled by witchcraft from 1776 to 2013) and his very modern cop cohort Abbie Mills, together with a raven embodying the soul of Crane’s long dead wife Katrina.
All of this we know from the pilot episode, which crams an extraordinary amount of plot exposition into the 40 minute running time. There’s enough story here for a two-and-a-half-hour movie but instead it’s crammed down our throats in an artless, incoherent gabble as fast as possible, presumably so that we don’t have time to stop and notice with a load of hackneyed, clichéd tripe it is, a collection of tropes from a dozen far better books and TV series all thrown together in the hope that something will spark and produce a new creative lifeform among the sludge and manure.
I really don’t know why this has reviewed so well (and it really has been, by a lot of very reliable people) because I came close to outright hating it. It’s the way that everything is spelled out for us and pushed on the audience without setting any grounds for us to accept the inanities. It’s as though they set off from the starting point that anyone who watches this is already completely credulous and will believe any nonsense put in front of them, and then goes from there without need for any further ado or scene-setting. Judging from the critical and audience reception to the show, they’re right to assume this and I’m just holding them to absurdly high standards by expecting anything better.
It’s not like there isn’t material that could have worked here, if they’d had anything like the time and patience to lay the groundwork and set the atmosphere rather than just jumping headlong into shooting and fighting. If there had been some mystery about who Ichabod was (rather than showing him first in a battle in the US Revolutionary War and then jump-cutting to his early morning wake up call in the modern day, making it all terribly literal from the get-go) or a more tense build-up to and treatment of the headless horseman’s scenes, then it might have been a very different matter.
Particularly irksome was the way that even the ‘everyday’ detail failed to deliver on any sort of authentic or believable level. The TV schedules are full of police procedurals but it appears that no one involved in this show has any working knowledge of how the police work or any interest in constructing characters with any sense of believable motivation or consistent character. It’s as incoherent as a Transformers movie – at which point I realised that the writer/developers of this show were the writers of the first two films of that franchise, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. They’re a pair with a very schizophrenic record for me: on the bad side there’s the Transformers outings, Cowboys & Aliens and the inanely pumped-up Hawaii Five-0 reboot; on the plus side are their JJ Abrams collaborations which include both Star Trek films, Fringe and Mission: Impossible III.
Sadly it seems that they just don’t seem to work for me at all when they’re outside Abrams’ sphere of influence. Here, the directorial presence is provided instead by Len Wiseman (Underworld, Die Hard 4.0) and there are a few visual flourishes in the pilot in terms of POV shots and FX that were really rather eye-catching and effective. The headless horseman himself still has a wonderfully eerie presence and primal horror to his (all too brief) appearances. And while we’re praising, I’ll also give kudos to the series lead Tom Mison for providing a calm, charismatic point of focus with a nice line in dry wit, and to Nicole Beharie who manages to overcome some inane scripting to make something halfway credible of her part as Lt Mills. But it’s genuinely hard to see what relative star names like Orlando Jones, John Cho, Clancy Brown and Nestor Serrano are doing in paper-thin roles, both brief and underwritten to the point of cardboard cut-outs. Only Jones appears to have an ongoing role in the series and his presence in the pilot makes it hard to believe he’s the same person who brought genuine scene-stealing warmth to films such as Evolution, Runaway Jury and The Time Machine. Here, he’s about as memorable as a potted plant in a thankless hard-ass commanding officer role.
Admittedly, pilots have a tough job as they have to set the groundwork for a prospective series, sell the idea to a network for a full-season commission, and make it enough of an instant ratings-grabber to dodge immediate cancellation. No pilot is perfect and all series take time to grow into their own skin. We’ve just seen exactly that with Marvel – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which seems to have proved strangely disappointing for many viewers and come under a lot of criticism for being ‘just a TV show’ when clearly people were expecting something … More. Yet to me, S.H.I.E.L.D. is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius next to this clunker, which in my mind at least will have to go a long way before it deserves any of the plaudits it’s received.
Okay, I’ll make one concession. At least Sleepy Hollow is trying to do something new and different – and that’s worth praising. It’s not a timid remake of Tim Burton’s 1999 Hammer Horror love note (which I loved, by the way) and it clearly has its own ideas of what it wants to do. In that sense it’s a reboot worth making – as opposed to, say, Bates Motel which doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up and is thus intimidated by the looming spectre of the famous Hitchcock film as Norman Bates himself is by the overweening presence of his mother. The fact that I personally didn’t like Sleepy Hollow – loathed it, even – is a matter of taste and clearly my own personal problem, and perhaps says something about my expectations and my preference for the Burton vision which is higher on stylish horror than it is on generic action.
To be fair to the show, rather than judging entirely from an atypical pilot episode I’ll doubtless watch at least one more instalment before deciding whether there’s anything for me here. If not then I’ll call it a day, but if Sleepy Hollow is indeed your kind of thing then I earnestly wish you well and hope you spend many happy TV seasons together in the future.
Sleepy Hollow airs in the UK on the Universal channel at 9pm on Wednesdays, with repeats during the following seven days and on the +1 catch up service. The DVD/Blu-ray release has not been scheduled as of time of writing.