There is a defining moment in the latter half of the Sleepy Hollow pilot. The Headless Horseman, having yielded a broad ax for a good portion of the episode, raids a gun cabinet and re-emerges armed to the teeth with an assortment of firearms, including a machine-gun that he brandishes in his hand like The Terminator.
Your response to this one image—whether it be an amused smile or a exasperated eye roll—will serve as a proverbial litmus test for how you’ll likely respond to Fox’s revisionist take on the famed Washington Irving short story. With that in mind, count me among those grinning like a 13-year-old boy who just discovered Die Hard.
The pilot opens on a Revolutionary War battlefield. Soldier Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison, looking significantly more GQ than the traditionally nebbish Crane of past adaptations) finds himself facing off against a masked, Red Coat-wearin’ Horseman who seems completely immune to gunfire. The intuitive Crane manages to successfully lob off the soldier’s head but not before being left with a seemingly lethal chest wound. Both men collapse, and we abruptly cut to the modern day where Crane—still in his 18th century attire—emerges from some funky-looking mud in a cave. Disoriented, he stumbles out into the open and onto a paved road where he is almost mowed down by several vehicles.
Cue The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and welcome to the wild and crazy world of Sleepy Hollow. Abandon all hope, ye literary purists who enter here.
The man-out-of-time soon crosses path with Abbie Mills, an African-American police lieutenant who has just witnessed the beheading of Sleepy Hollow sheriff August Corbin (Clancy Brown) by the same (albeit, now Headless) Horseman that Crane faced in battle. Though Crane is branded a madman by the rest of the Sleepy Hollow police force, Abbie does not completely dismiss his tales of time travel and the supernatural. Together, the two team up and unearth the town’s hidden past and how those dark secrets affect not only Sleepy Hollow but the fate of the world itself.
This crazy concept comes courtesy of Canadian writer Phillip Iscove, who developed the script with power screenwriting team Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Fringe, the rebooted Star Trek series) and pilot director Len Wiseman (he of Underworld fame). Despite the multitude of names attached to it, the script boasts a taut, calculated feel, with the writing deftly balancing the seriousness innate to its apocalyptic premise with the comedic antics of a buddy-cop action-thriller.
Much of the humor emerges from Crane’s fish-out-of-water status, including his amusing intro to Abbie where, unfamiliar with modern customs, he asks if she’s been “emancipated” from enslavement as well as a later scene where he spots several Starbucks in a row and asks, completely straight-faced, “is there a law?”
For his part, Wiseman gives the pilot the sleek look and tight pacing of one of his studio productions. That being said, he’s not averse to including several playful touches, as in one scene where the audience experiences the POV of a decapitated head as it tumbles off the body.
As the perplexed Crane, Mison is a charming presence, dispensing a dry wit with relative ease. Joining him are the likes of Star Trek alum John Cho as Abbie’s police colleague and a surprisingly subdued performance from funnyman Orlando Jones as police captain Frank Irving (no doubt, a nod to the source material’s author).
The true VIP of this pilot, however, is Nicole Beharie as Abbie. Recently seen as Jackie Robinson’s supportive wife in this year’s 42 and as one of Michael Fassbender’s paramours in the 2011 sex addiction drama Shame, Beharie’s grounded performance not only instigates a great rapport with Mison but also gives the ensuing insanity a real sense of heart, providing an excellent anchor for the audience. She’s both quick to address the inherent absurdity of certain plot elements while never acting as though she’s in any way above the material.
Like most pilots, the episode is not without its stumbles. In particular, a scene where Crane is visited in a vision by his wife Katrina (Katia Winter) can’t help but feel like a rushed exposition dump. Also, while any initial episode of a new series is required to jump through numerous logic hoops to get its story in place, Abbie’s quick comfort level with Crane is a tad suspect. After only one brief interaction with him, she allows the potentially insane prisoner to ride in the passenger seat of her police cruiser rather than sticking him in the back—a big procedural ‘no-no,’ especially for someone as professional as Abbie.
Yet these are mostly minor gripes for what is very much a fun, pulpy hour of primetime television. Certainly, the pilot’s eerie closing scene will have the right audience desperate to find out what happens next. In an industry littered with half-baked retellings or cheap reiterations of famous stories, it’s refreshing to see a show that so vibrantly brings to life the kind of stories we all no doubt daydreamed about while bored out of our minds in high school English class.