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The critical and commercial success of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow was one of the biggest surprises of the 2013 fall television season. I know it certainly surprised me. When I first heard that Fox was going to air a series that brought Ichabod Crane into 2013, I rolled my eyes and chuckled. On paper, it sounds like a pretty crazy premise for a television show, and I’m sure many people adopted the same view I originally had. That being said, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be wrong about a show.
In case you haven’t watched the first season, I’m going to break this article into two parts. Part one is a spoiler-free explanation of why Sleepy Hollow is great and worth watching, with some commentary on what made season one so darn wonderful (for those firmly on the Hollow bandwagon, I’m likely preaching to the choir, so feel free to skip it if you wish or even add your own thoughts on what makes the show great below in the comments). The second part will have spoilers for the season, as I review more in depth why the season worked so incredibly well (and, for those thinking about watching it, the season as a whole is excellent).
So, Sleepy Hollow is a show about Ichabod Crane waking up in 2013 and being pursued by the Headless Horseman. Yes, I know that sounds like the worst idea in the history of television. But it works, and here’s a brief (spoiler free) explanation of why.
First of all, the show doesn’t shy away from its absurd premise. There is plenty of skepticism to go along with the idea that a demonic headless killer is riding through the town, and that a Revolutionary War soldier has risen from the dead. But the mythology that is woven around this premise makes the series work incredibly well. When I describe the series to non-watchers, I most often compare it to the early years of The X-Files, before its mythology began spiraling out of control. There are clear rules outlined within the series, designed to prevent a deus ex machina from simply saving the day in the end.
Occasionally, the mythology might become a tad complex (without giving too much away, the big bad is Moloch, a demon with the ultimate goal of bringing about the Apocalypse – with a capital A – and relies mostly on the Book of Revelation as its guide), but the first season’s storyline builds slowly and coherently, and each twist and turn feels earned.
Moreover, the series attacks its premise with plenty of humor to balance out the drama. Having a main character from 1775 trying to adjust to the world of 2013 is bound to bring about some fun and lighthearted moments. And on a series that can get quite dark at times (the Headless Horseman does, in fact, kill people), that humor is needed. The humor also serves to heighten the strong emotional bonds that develop between the show’s central characters over the course of the season.
The other major selling point for the series is its cast. This show would absolutely fail without Tom Mison (Ichabod) and Nicole Beharie (Lieutenant “Leftenant” Abbie Mills). You know those strong emotional bonds I mentioned? They are most noticeably forged between Ichabod and his Leftenant. And not in a will-they-or-won’t-they romantic way (Ichabod’s wife is trapped in Purgatory . . . yeah, just watch it, it works). Mison and Beharie have the same easy chemistry that is present in the best buddy movies. Their interactions (along with the excellent supporting cast) make Sleepy Hollow a series worth watching.
Now, onto the spoiler-filled review of the season as a whole.
Warning: Beyond this point, there be spoilers!
So, who thought Sleepy Hollow would be able to maintain its quality, tie-up a series of lingering loose ends, and set itself up with a bleak but incredibly satisfying cliffhanger? I certainly did not. But that’s exactly what season one of the show managed to do. And while I have a few theories regarding how the show will get itself out of the corner the writers have written it into, that had to be one of the best cliffhangers I’ve seen in a good while.
Sleepy Hollow did a heck of a lot right during its inaugural season. The show built a coherent mythology (a deceptively difficult thing to do), and still made time to flesh out the characters dotting its landscape. Taking the time to establish the rules (who Moloch is, how Purgatory works, when the Horseman can appear, and what can stop evil) early and often without a doubt saved the show from falling into a complete mess.
Furthermore, the flashbacks to the Revolutionary War added depth to Ichabod as a character and gave us a context to better understand the jarring juxtaposition between then and now. It’s all well and good to make jokes about Ichabod discovering Starbucks, but it elevates those comments beyond just throwaway lines to see what his life was like where he came from. The flashbacks also allowed us the chance to get to know Katrina, who was woefully underused and handicapped as a character when stuck in Purgatory. This backstory made the key reveals (that the Horseman is actually Ichabod’s former friend and Katrina’s former fiancé, and that Henry Parish is actually Jeremy Crane) all the more powerful.
Going into the finale, the only major quibbles I had with the series were feeling that “The Golem” was a really weak episode without much of a pay-off, and feeling that Katrina being stuck in Purgatory was hindering her impact on the show (it was getting too easy to forget her importance to Ichabod when she couldn’t interact or aid our Disciples). Needless to say, those two concerns were washed away with the finale. Now, my only quibble is that Frank’s storyline is rapidly splitting off from the central action, which could become a major drag on the series if it is allowed to continue.
It is interesting to learn more about Frank and his family (and, it places the stakes a bit higher whenever a kid is involved in scary things). But the arrest/trial doesn’t truly impact the storyline beyond creating conflict for Abbie. When the safety of all of humanity is under threat, the possible murder trial of a police officer isn’t really high on my priorities list. And, really, with Frank locked away out of town, how much impact can he truly have on the dangerous goings on in Sleepy Hollow? Among the many corners the writers painted themselves into with the excellent finale, this might be the hardest one to get out of (assuming Orlando Jones, who was excellent in his not very showy role, will be returning full-time in season two).
As for the rest of the characters, I’m not sure I can remember a series where I genuinely cared about the entire set of characters (except for Morales, who is pretty bland and useless when he’s not possessed). This season worked as well as it did thanks to the combination of excellent writing and incredible acting. The story flowed relatively smoothly from A to Z, and the cast was unafraid to take risks and venture into the strange and sometimes crazy world the writers created. An audience can tell when someone is phoning it in, or isn’t fully committed to the story. This was never the case with Sleepy Hollow, which would have fallen apart if the complex and often strange mythology was not taken seriously.
So, where can the show go from here? My best guess (and this is truly a guess) is that Andy Brooks somehow gets into Purgatory to aid in Abbie’s escape. As for the rest of the gang, I only hope Katrina and Jenny survive their ordeals in one piece. Ichabod has to survive, right? So I’m not particularly worried about his fate. I would be really bummed to lose Jenny (the scene in the finale between Jenny and Abbie was incredible), and more sad for Ichabod than for Katrina should the Horseman get his revenge on her.
I’m completely at a loss as to how the writers will bring about the escape of Abbie and the resurrection of Ichabod and Jenny. But I have absolute faith that they can pull it off. After seeing how well they managed to plot out and pace this season, I truly believe season two will be just as gripping and crazy as season one.