First Impressions: Sleepy Hollow

Fox’s Sleepy Hollow premiered on Monday, the first new speculative fiction show of the fall television season. We discussed our anticipation of the supernatural buddy cop drama on the second episode of Hard N.O.C. Life, focusing on the rarity of its black female lead. Here, with some minor spoilers, are my first impressions.

The pilot episode wasted no time in introducing the central conceit and moving the plot along with judicious bits of exposition: Redcoat-turned-American-spy Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and the supernatural Horseman he made Headless during a Revolutionary War battle awaken in Sleepy Hollow, New York after more than two centuries, where Sheriff Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) is haunted by a childhood encounter with the supernatural (experienced with her sister) and is charged by her mentor/partner (played by a white-haired-and-bearded Clancy Brown in a criminally-too-short guest role) to investigate all the creepy stuff happening in the town’s background.

I watch more than my share of cheesy sci-fi and fantasy television, and stay in longer than I probably should sometimes, so I’m sure I’m going to be watching this for a while, regardless, but I do have to say that the episode did a good job of keeping its sense of humor and not taking itself too seriously while simultaneously not crossing the line into cheesy (or at least too cheesy) or campy. It knows what notes to strike for a wry laugh while not going overboard or beating you over the head with a plot point. Time-displaced fish-out-of-water moments? Check. References to the 21st century’s racial and gender realities in a show with a black female cop lead? Check? Abbie’s quick sarcastic cuts (“Wait, back up, you’re offended?” to Ichabod’s dismay at being assumed a racist; ” “A bird led you here. That’s great.”) are just enough, and I have to admit that the bit with Ichabod’s observations on the ubiquity of Starbucks made me laugh out loud. And if you need more proof that this show knows how to have fun with itself, see the aftermath of the Headless Horseman’s fight with the village’s mysterious clergyman.

Headless horseman crossing.

The show obviously popped up on the NOC radar because of its casting. Nicole Beharie’s Abbie is Sleepy Hollow‘s Scully to Ichabod Crane’s time-hopping Mulder, or maybe Olivia to Ichabod’s Walter (it’s worth noting here that Fringe — among other things, like the Star Trek reboots — vets Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are the show creators here), and the fact that the character is a smart black woman makes it, and the show, stand out. The Root sees Abbie as a potential new presentation of race in contemporary America:

Yeah, I’m African American, she seems to be saying, and the sky is also blue. She keeps it moving, unhampered by the constraints of identity politics. Her Abbie is a no-fuss, no-muss everywoman, attractive, but decidedly unglamorous, a woman who’s got a job to do and does it — well.

In the pairing of Mills and Crane, io9 sees echoes of another recent interracial cross-gender crime-fighting pairing:

And not for nothing, Sleepy Hollow also has some of the dynamics that have made Elementary such a success in its first year, particularly a snarky and imperfect hero whose journey includes facing his assumptions, and a capable and sarcastic woman of color who is not going to hesitate to point those assumptions out, and also work hard to set her judgements aside and seek the truth, and also wrestle her own demons, and also leverage authority, and also have family concerns, and also Abbie Mills just has the potential to be really cool, okay? She could just be really cool. Don’t mess this up, show.

Beyond Beharie, there’s a supporting cast that includes Orlando Jones as Captain Frank Irving (whose sidelong glances when he thinks no one is looking seem intended to make us question his motives), Lyndie Greenwood as Abbie’s traumatized sister Jenny in upcoming episodes, and, in the pilot, in, sadly, a guest role that seems not to be recurring, John Cho as cop Andy Dunn.

Clockwise from top left: Nicole Beharie as Sheriff Abbie Mills; Orlando Jones as Capt. Frank Irving; Lyndie Greenwood as Jenny Mills; and John Cho as Andy Dunn.
Clockwise from top left: Nicole Beharie, Orlando Jones, Lyndie Greenwood, and John Cho.

The promise of the pilot is a series that combines the supernatural procedural and mythology of a Grimm, which I love, with the odd-couple-investigators of The X-Files and the main-character-has-a-special-destiny of Fringe. Will it deliver on that promise? Only time will tell — but, I think, an important part of that potential success will be the showrunners’ and writers’ ability to continue injecting the humor and levity that made the absurdity of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman running around 2013 New York State in the pilot swallowable.

You can watch Sleepy Hollow Mondays at 9 p.m. E/P on Fox, or stream the pilot here. Did you watch the pilot? What did you think? Will you be tuning in again?