When I first heard that Fox was going to have a show based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, I got excited. The original story has weird ye-olde American Goth elements, and Ichabod Crane is a giant dork who's vying for the hand of the lovely Katrina against the town meathead. Along the way, he's being stalked by the Headless Horseman, a Hessian soldier looking for his head (not to be confused for a hesher looking for head in the parking lot of a concert, but if Fox was cool it would at least put this dude in an Iron Maiden T-shirt).
This is 2013 television though, so that means that execs are going to take a classic story with supernatural elements (Grimm, Once Upon A Time, Alice in Wonderland) and totally fuck it up, right? The first episode of Sleepy Hollow sure looked that way, and to be honest, despite the fact that it is supposedly the "runaway hit of the season," it's still pretty messed up in a lot of ways.
The show's pilot opens in the late 1700s in a shady glen during some sort of battle (hmm.... was something going on in New England at that time? Whatever). Crane lops off the Horseman's nugget, but his girlfriend Katrina, who's a witch, has set it up so that Crane's soul is bound to that of the Headless dude for all of eternity in order to save his life. I was already confused and only 10 minutes had elapsed. I tend to avoid books that have maps of the author's imaginary lands in the gatefold and detailed glossaries of characters in the back. I admit that I'm not bright enough to follow complicated plots. Hell, I can't even figure out what's happening on Law & Order half the time.
So Sleepy Hollow makes me feel dumb. That's not to say it's not an overall enjoyable ride, nonetheless. The writers have employed the same formula as that of The Good Wife: Have a great, stand-alone plot each week that gets resolved while you also have a longer story arc that moves throughout the entire season. So far we've seen a lot of good monsters like The Sandman, who feeds on people's guilt about un-atoned wrongs (yes!), evil witches, demonic ghosts, and of course the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, because that's what, ultimately, everyone on the show is up against — as are we, no?
It helps that every episode is better than the last. A recent one, "Sanctuary," involved a haunted mansion, a profoundly evil presence that looks like a rootball from hell, and some genuine suspense. Crane makes his way through the house in what feels like a nightmare we have all had: You are trapped in a giant, creepy place and something is chasing you that you don't know how to kill. Maybe next week Crane will find himself back in high school with no clothes, trying to find his chemistry class to take a final that he hasn't studied for.
What gets tiresome is Crane's "fish out of water" shtick; a man from 250 years ago who can't understand Red Bull, the concept of having a billion dollars, or the fact that his trusty African-American sidekick Abbie is not an emancipated slave. Our hero is played by Tom Mison, and he definitely puts the "bod" in Ichabod, and has genuine chemistry with Abbie, played by Nicole Beharie. Perhaps this is why the show has galloped to the front of the ratings race for the new fall season. Hell, even the show's executives seem surprised. "Frankly, I'm stunned," said producer Alex Kurtzman at TVGuide.com. "Our jaws were on the floor. We kind of can't believe it."
This reminds me of the Onion headline, "Even CEO Can't Figure Out Why Radio Shack Is Still In Business." It's certainly not as intelligent or well thought out as rival dramas on premium channels, so what gives? Let's call the success of this show the "long tail" of TV. All you need are a few dedicated watchers blogging and swapping fan feedback and you can build momentum in a show. I also think that disaffected Once Upon A Time peeps have been doing comparison shopping and found superior product.
Fox has of course renewed Sleepy Hollow for another season, and I'm optimistic that by then Crane will be firmly ensconced in 2014 and will shut up about silver-smithing and randomly adding "E's" to the endse of wordse, and concentrate on kicking apocalyptic butt. Oh, and take his shirt off more. That would be good.