Sleepy Hollow is the first television work by writer/creator Phillip Iscove, and the original idea – Ichabod Crane fights in the Revolutionary War (which was secretly a war between Good and Evil), is wounded and then wakes up in the present to continue fighting the evil Headless Horseman (who is the Horseman of the Apocalypse, Death) in a creepy town with a history of supernatural events – isn’t a bad one. There’s a lot to work with there, and with the right amount of batshit crazy, this could be something really special.
However, in order to get his idea onto the screen, Iscove pitched the concept to some of the most generic and lifeless Creative Minds working today. Oh, they’re successful, no doubt, but their successes are due to the fact that they have the miraculous ability to strip the creativity and personality from an idea and turn it into pablum with the widest possible appeal.
Here’s a bit of their histories in case you don’t know what I mean.
After forming their screenwriting team-up writing for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci wrote a script for Xena: Warrior Princess and then 3 for Jack of All Trades before getting the biggest break in their careers by hooking up with J.J. Abrams as producers on Alias (where they scripted 10 of the 57 episodes they produced). However, they moved on from that show, in order to focus on feature film work, crafting masterpieces like Michael Bay’s The Island, The Legend of Zorro, Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III, and Bay’s Transformers before returning to TV to co-create Fringe with Abrams (and write 3 whole episodes over the run of the show). There are some flourishes here and there during this run, particularly in collaboration with Abrams, but since 2009 they have also been responsible for the Star Trek reboot, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Cowboys & Aliens, and Star Trek Into Darkness (plus the Hawaii Five-O reboot). ‘Nuff said.
Len Wiseman made his feature film directorial debut with Underworld and then stuck around for the sequel, Underworld: Evolution (he also served as producer on each of the following sequels). While those films were entertaining, they were also extremely dumb and jam-packed with clichés and visual references to other, better films. He then lived out one of his childhood dreams and directed (the PG-13) Live Free or Die Hard. After teaming up with Kurtzman and Orci to direct the pilot for the Hawaii Five-O reboot, he then went on to direct the 2012 reboot of Total Recall. ‘Nuff said, again.
Now these three Creative Minds have come together to bring Iscove’s horror adventure to Fox. In the final product, though, there’s not a single element that doesn’t reek of focus groups, Q factors, marketing departments, and plain old pandering to the audience, but somewhere underneath it all is a good heart.
Ichabod Crane is sexily played by Tom Mison, and the character seems to have been spat out by a Geek Girl Obsession Machine. He practically shits Facebook Memes pairing him up with Sherlock, Captain Jack, and The Doctor, although with none of their originality. But damn is he sexy with his long locks, his stubbly beard, and best of all, his period coat. All good Memes need a sexy coat.
The Creative Minds do their damndest to make this show appeal to the widest audience, with wacky fish-out-of-water hijinks (Ha ha! Starbucks jokes! It’s 2005 all over again!), bloodless violence (Luckily the Horseman’s axe cauterizes wounds when he beheads someone!), a creepy conspiracy going back centuries (Good vs. Evil witch covens!), Biblical Apocalyptic Prophecy (Good vs. Evil witch covens?), and a bi-racial team of heroes (She’s a cop, she’s black, and she’s sassy!). It takes the best parts of Supernatural and Buffy and mashes them up with the most popular parts of Elementary and Grimm to make something not as good as any of them, burying most of the originality with lazy clichés.
Making the Headless Horseman Death Incarnate isn’t a deal-breaker (although turning him into Jason Voorhees with no personality of any kind is a missed opportunity), even though it seems like War would have been a more natural choice. Alongside that quibble, there is the problem of his power levels. Since he’s Death Incarnate, you know, he can’t be killed. But that makes him too powerful to deal with, so to give the characters a way around that, Death can’t stand sunlight.
Yes, Death Incarnate runs away when the sun rises. That’s kind of comforting, isn’t it?
And to give our heroes an immediate McGuffin to add a sense of urgency, Death needs to find his head so he can get back up to full strength and kick off The Biblical Apocalypse. So our heroes have to work with the Good Witch Conspiracy to keep the head hidden! But the Evil Witch Conspiracy, led by a pasty white CGI Devil, is hot on their trail and have allies in high places.
Most of Sleepy Hollow plays out like someone skimmed the Wikipedia entries on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Book of Revelation” and then flipped that into a script in the laziest way possible. Possibly in a single afternoon.
There are only a couple of times where Sleepy Hollow embraces its crazy and almost becomes interesting. The first is when we discover that Ichabod and Officer Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) will be accessing murdered Sheriff Corbin’s (Clancy Brown – was there ever a bigger waste of screen talent than murdering Mr. Krabs before the first commercial break? Also, has anybody made a “There can be only one” joke yet?) Secret Occult Files tracking supernatural occurrences over the past 250 years or so while using George Washington’s Bible to guide them in their fight against Evil.
George Washington’s Bible!
Because, remember, the Revolutionary War was really just cover for the War against the Impending Apocalypse.
The second is that Reverend Alfred Knapp (Patrick Gorman) seems to have something interesting to add, but he isn’t given much to do beyond skulk around, until we flash back and discover that he’s been ALIVE SINCE THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR!! And then he has a MAGIC BATTLE WITH THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN BEFORE GETTING HIS OWN HEAD CHOPPED OFF!!!
These bits of inventiveness may keep me coming back, but I’m still not really sold on t
he show. Most of the performances were serviceable, but nothing special. Orlando Jones and John Cho both play their characters a bit too obviously, with Cho’s betrayal being the biggest non-surprise of the pilot. Jones may be allowed to bring more subtlety to his role as Captain Frank Irving (Irving, get it?) as we go along, since it’s gobsmackingly obvious that he has secret knowledge about what’s going on in Sleepy Hollow.
The previews for the rest of the initial 13-episode run are mildly intriguing with the show putting the pedal to the metal on the “Prophecies Are Unfolding” angle and a number of creepily-designed monsters are appearing as Evil builds its army. Or something like that. The Four Horsemen, however, look like they sprang to life from the side of a rockin’ 70s Van.
There’s a decided lack of subtlety to the entire affair. But if the other reviews around the web and the ratings are to be believed, it looks like subtlety and innovation are not what the audience wants.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.