It’s a question I ask myself every time I sit down to watch an episode of this utterly insane show. I keep waiting for Sleepy Hollow to falter, for it to go just one step too far down the road to Crazy Town, but it never does. Or at least hasn’t yet. After the surprising success of the first season, I thought there was no way the creators would be able to keep it going. They’d believe their own hype too much, the show would forget what it was trying to be, and finally turn into the stupid waste of time we all originally expected. Instead, since season 2 started, the exact opposite has happened. The show is only more sure of itself, more entertaining, funnier, crazier, and moving at a faster pace than ever. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Sleepy Hollow is a small miracle.
In case you’re unaware of the show’s basic premise and characters, I’ll try to explain as quickly as possible and without sounding like a raving lunatic. Bear with me here: Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) wakes up in modern times after chopping of an evil horseman’s head on the battlefield in the late 1700’s. He soon finds himself working side by side with Abby Mills (Nicole Beharie), a young sheriff’s deputy who has suffered visions of demons before and whose sister is locked up in an insane asylum. They soon discover that the resurrected headless horseman is one of the four horseman of the apocalypse brought forth by a demon called Molcoh to bring about the end of days. Moloch also trapped Ichabod’s wife Katrina (who is a witch) in Purgatory and she occasionally sends him cryptic warnings about other demons he and Abby will have to face. They’re aided by a sin eater (John Noble) who turns out to be (A) evil, (B) Ichabod and Katrina’s son, and (C) the 2nd horseman of the apocalypse. Got all that? There’s also zombie George Washington, a somewhat friendly Golem, tons of fish out of water jokes, loads of other supernatural creatures, haunted houses, ancient tunnels filled with weapons, and George Washington’s bible which serves as the show’s chief source of exposition.
None of this should work. NONE OF IT. And yet somehow, it all does. When I tell people they should give this show a chance, the usual reaction I get is a scoff followed by a “you’ve gotta be kidding me” look. I understand this response completely. Hell, it’s exactly how I felt when I first read the premise: ‘Ichabod Crane wakes up in present day Sleepy Hollow and teams up with a female sheriff’s deputy to fight a machine gun toting Headless Horseman and other supernatural creatures?’ That’s STUPID. My initial response was correct. It IS stupid. Here’s the thing though; it knows how stupid it is and uses that element to its advantage. And it’s not stupid in a self-referential, jokey way. It plays this dopey material completely straight and that’s why it’s so goddam funny. A farce is only funny when its characters act like they’re in a tragedy. The humor comes from the fact that they cannot see how ridiculous they are. Same with Sleepy Hollow.
Much of the show’s success is due to the two leads, Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie. They both perfectly walk the fine line between drama and camp. Mison has a blast playing with Ichabod’s culture shock and I will never ever tire of the constant fish out of water jokes as long as he keeps selling them. Beharie is an excellent straight man, calmly explaining how things work now and frequently pointing out his hypocrisy when he rants about how much better things were in his time. They have a wonderful rapport, supported by the fact that the show seems to have zero interest in making them into a romantic couple. They’re partners who need, love and respect each other and that’s more than enough. The show runners know we don’t need a tedious ‘will they, won’t they’ subplot ala Mulder and Scully.
Another thing that works is the way Sleepy Hollow barrels forward with no regard at all for narrative convention. More things happen in ten minutes than in other show’s entire seasons. These things frequently don’t make sense but because the actors insist they do and the plot moves so fast, we don’t have time to notice or argue. Exchanges like this are frequent:
ICHABOD: Katrina is trapped in Purgatory! There’s no way into Purgatory!
ABBY: Wait, according to Washington’s Bible, he enlisted an inventor to create a key that would open a door between the two worlds.
ICHABOD: (with skepticism) Who was this inventor?
ABBY: (gasp) Benjamin Franklin.
ICHABOD: Of course. No doubt Franklin hid the key somewhere close but left a complex set of clues and puzzles in order for us to find it.
ABBY: How’d you know that?
ICHABOD: Franklin was a pompous ass.
Dialogue like that takes about a minute. Next Ichabod and Abby will scour the internet for maps and locations, Ichabod will make a few jokes about the modern world, they’ll set off to find the first clue, have to dig up a grave, and fend off some zombies. Quick cut to John Noble chewing the scenery while telling the horseman to beat them to it, then quick cut to Katrina in purgatory running from demons, then back to Ichabod and Abby as they find the second clue and fend off the horseman as he fires at them with his machine gun. Abby’s sister will come to their rescue, they’ll find the key, resurrect a Golem to protect them from the horseman, rescue Katrina, and then the fucking opening credits will roll.
That kind of reckless forward momentum propels every moment of the show. I keep waiting for it to hit the ceiling but I’m starting to think that there might be no ceiling. It’s as if creators Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Len Wiseman, are children who stole the keys to a Halloween Costume shop: they ain’t giving em back and they’re gonna play all night.
What surprises me most is how confident it is in itself. Take a look at Gotham (which airs before Sleepy Hollow) and you’ll see a show with no identity desperately flailing its arms in search of a consistent tone. The most recent Gotham episode decided to throw in a plot about child slavery and treat it as camp. Anyone who thought that was a good idea should be fired. Here’s a property that has been consistently successful for 75 years and the show runners have NO idea what to do with the material. Sleepy Hollow is a dumb update on an old story that nobody asked for or cared about. And yet it is so much more certain of what it wants to do: provide a solid hour of entertainment, complete with likeable characters, big laughs, a creepy atmosphere, and loads of monsters. In an era where so many other shows are deadly serious, Sleepy Hollow is a refreshing blast of dumb fun. If you haven’t seen the first season, October is the perfect month to catch up. Give it a chance. And stop giving me that look.