Sep 24 2013
Did you guys see Sleepy Hollow? It’s the latest in a seemingly endless line of modern revampings; the gag this time is that Ichabod Crane wakes up in 2013 after being mortally injured in a battle of the Revolutionary War. He soon realizes that the Headless Horseman (here, a British soldier) has awoken simultaneously, and may be one of the Four Horsemen of the Apoca–wait, ANOTHER Apocalypse storyline? Are you F***ING KIDDING ME???
Ergh. Okay. Creatively bankrupt premise aside, the pilot for Sleepy Hollow showed some genuine promise. Well… okay, that might be an overstatement. Basically, it’s completely nuts, and the last ten minutes or so of the episode contains some delightfully bonkers imagery that almost justifies the show’s existence.
Unfortunately, it’s built on a foundation of sand. The show’s pleasures are genuine — the action and acting are the real thing — but they won’t last. If they continue with the quality of writing displayed in the pilot, Sleepy Hollow will never find anything approaching real drama. It might not even land a single interesting character.
Sleepy Hollow is one of those shows whose script seems to have been assembled in a lab by scientists who have certainly studied stories a lot but never gotten outside and seen one in the wild. I could make this a really short article and just point out that Orci and Kurtzman (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Cowboys & Aliens, Transformers, etc.) are two of the writers on here, but let’s get a little more specific.
Mild SPOILERS ahead.
Get it? Ahead? Ah, forget it…
Like, okay, for example: co-main character Lt. Abbie Mills mentions at the beginning of the episode that she’s leaving in a week. Leaving Sleepy Hollow, that is; a place where there’s nothing to keep her and nowhere to go. This little bit of “character development” is a joke; a useless aside on top of being a total cliche.
I might feel differently if her imminent departure actually affected the episode. You know, if she didn’t want to get involved in the case because she didn’t want to get stuck again, or if she actively resisted her assignment at the end of the episode. Or if she didn’t already have sufficient motivation for the story thanks to her recently murdered partner.
So… yeah, that little “last week in town” nugget was pure fluff. A contrived bit of narrative showmanship that only exists to create a moment at the end of the episode where everything “comes full circle.”
Bear in mind that this show, after a single episode, has already unspooled enough in-story mythology to fill half the season. Every second spent on extraneous plot threads is a second wasted.
Know what’s annoying? When the idea of a conflict gets introduced, but the story refuses to actually engage that conflict head-on. Generally speaking, this happens when the writers of something name-drop a potentially interesting conflict without actually addressing it.
This is all over the interplay between Lt. Mills and Ichabod Crane. As previously mentioned, this show’s Crane is a Revolutionary War veteran who collapses during a skirmish with British troops and wakes up in 2013. It’s a gimmick, but a compelling one: What would life be like for a man thrown 250 years out of his own time?
According to the pilot, it’d be pretty smooth sailing. Crane’s chronological displacement registers as little more than window-dressing; a shallow device useful for little more than cool costuming and unimaginative humor.
Not that the potential for interesting stuff isn’t there. At one point, Ichabod Crane comes face-to-face with the fact that he is in the custody of a police officer who happens to be both black and female.
I mean, whoa. Total perspective shift. This woman belongs to two separate groups that, in Crane’s time, weren’t allowed to do much more than “whatever they’re told,” and now he’s found that he, the white male, is pretty much powerless by comparison.
How does he react? He doesn’t. Not really. I mean, he asks her to verify that she has indeed been emancipated — a line of questioning to which she hilariously overreacts* — and then seems pretty much cool with it. Because this show character dynamics are boring and wouldn’t know an interesting bit of honest texture if it bit them in the face.
And yes, I know that Crane self-identifies as an abolitionist, but that’s hardly the same thing as having absolutely no sense of (period-appropriate) racism left in his worldview. Despite being around when America was still colonies, Ichabod Crane is more progressive than a lot of people I’VE met, and has certainly left famous historical progressives like Abraham Lincoln in the dust.
Later on, Crane’s remarkable coolness towards modern life shows up yet again when he comments on the oddity of Lt. Mills’s wearing pants instead of a dress. As with the other instance, his being almost a quarter of a century out of his own time doesn’t really phase him; women wearing pants seems to bother him about as much as it does, say, me. By which I mean “not at all.”
*Monocle pops out, falls into drink*
So, I gotta ask… what’s the point of the time travel element here? I mean, from a story perspective? Wouldn’t it be a) more believable and b) more dramatic if Crane found his partner’s attire vulgar? Distracting? Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the race thing mattered at all? I’m not asking for these to be the central dramatic questions of the series, but it’s odd to watch a guy get transplanted from one end of America’s history to the other and barely notice.
Oh, also, wouldn’t it be interesting if Crane was more taken aback by modern technology? All we see is his casual curiosity when faced with a flashlight** and a mechanized passenger window.*** Why aren’t these characters doing anything?
While I’m on that subject, now might be a good time to mention that Crane at no point in the narrative does anything to indicate that he’s anything other than harmlessly nuts (or possibly high). He doesn’t try to wear a sword around town, he doesn’t threaten to revolt against taxes or the military. Nor does he give any red-herring sign that he’s the Horseman. He just speaks with a British accent and accidentally says something that sorta appears racist.
And yet, in the span of about ten narrative minutes, he’s been handcuffed, mocked, threatened, and unceremoniously thrown in a mental asylum. Presumably, this conversation takes place offscreen: “Oh, by the way, let’s not pursue the obvious connection between that bizarre, inexplicable man who believes he’s from the Revolutionary War and the bizarre, inexplicable murder that happened the same night he appeared. And throw away the key!”
Okay, okay… In fairness to the show, Lt. Mills actually does take an interest in Crane’s story, and defies orders so that he can have a chance to show her the place where he allegedly came back to life. In fairness to me, he shows her an upturned grave, creepy jars with animals in them, and a straight-up ancient Bible, and she still pretty much refuses to listen to anything he says.**** I know he sounds crazy, but you’d think it’s the kind of crazy that’d at least be interesting to listen to for a couple minutes.
A large part of what makes all this so irritating is that the show really has the stones to go some weird places. I love the image of a shotgun-wielding Headless Horseman as much as the next fella. Those sorts of things get boring fast, though, if there’s not a compelling context around them. And who knows? Maybe this show will actually get its feet under it. Maybe they just… I don’t know, needed to phone in the setup to a really cool, interesting season of television.
I’m not holding my breath. Because dammit, if you can’t count on a network TV show to have a paint-by-numbers approach to drama, then what CAN you count on?
Oh, right. You can buy THIS show today, by the way. I’m a fan.
*She essentially threatens to shoot him. I think it’s supposed to be funny but still.
**You know, I’m pretty sure this particular piece of technology should have made sense to him. Candles with mirrors were certainly a thing.
***Ugh. I clearly should have made a whole paragraph out of this. Look, if a man from the 1700s is put in the front seat — which, what? — of a police dispatch car, I seriously doubt the windows are the thing that’ll catch his eye. I’d respectfully submit walkie-talkies, cell phones, absolutely anything on the dashboard, or the fact that this guy hasn’t ever ridden anything but a horse in his entire life and the engine in the car is worth 140 of them. To repeat myself, wouldn’t it be more interesting if he actually DID something instead of just fiddling with the window for a minute?
****Especially when he reads from the “Book of Revelations,” which, in fairness to her again, ISN’T A REAL BOOK OF THE BIBLE DON’T YOU PEOPLE READ.
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