Bring It Down A Notch
Sleepy Hollow is great -- but its big bad is too big and too bad.
Fringe didn't succeed all the time, but when it did, it did for three reasons: blind faith in its own slapdash science; haunting visuals (the Observers, for one); and the humanizing effects of a central character (John Noble's Walter) who's both tragic and hilarious. Each element balanced the others, and based on Sleepy Hollow's proportions of the same elements, I feel good about its long-term chances…but I hope it uses the upcoming baseball break to change a few things.
Last night's episode is typical of Sleepy Hollow's strengths and its weaknesses, starting with the show's "well, why not" approach to storytelling. It absolutely believes, despite the fact that the Roanoke colonists disappeared nearly two hundred years before Crane (Tom Mison) existed, four states away, that it can get away with using the lost colony as a way to get a second Horseman of the Apocalypse into the story -- and against all odds, it worked, at least on me. Granted, Roanoke is one of the unsolved mysteries I'm obsessed with, so the chill that ran up my arms may not translate to other, less nerdy viewers, but the show also carefully sets up that chill -- and others -- with cool shots like the Plague horseman atomizing when he hit the modern roadway; an anonymous dark figure looming in the back of a shot of Crane and Katrina (Katia Winter) in purgatory; and the post-baptism flashover that leaves Crane and Abbie (Nicole Beharie) in the middle of an abandoned campsite, subtly lit to give the woods a menacing feeling.
At the same time, Sleepy Hollow knows how close to camp it gets, and constantly works in bits and wisecracks to let the air out of things. This is where the writing on the show is really a Viking, making Crane just self-important enough (and also clueless, and a warm person) and Abbie just snarky enough in response. Mison is quite brilliant with the little bits of business, warily inspecting a shower pouf or interacting with a piece of scotch tape like a cat who's gotten some stuck to his paw pads.
But now that Sleepy Hollow's gotten renewed already -- and is bringing John Noble on as a guest star in upcoming episodes -- it needs to take the opportunity to tighten up a few screws. As much as I admire the slo-mo shots of evil horsemen galloping through dark and foggy woods, sometimes it feels like stalling. That, and the "here's the background on the legend" previouslies at the beginning, which are then followed by the actual "what happened in the last episode" previouslies, and then the credits on top of that. It's a little filler-y.
And that probably proceeds from the problem of setting up huge doomy abstractions as your Big Bad. Not to take away from the boldness of making the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse your villains; it's that balls-out commitment that lets Sleepy Hollow work. It doesn't allow for much middle ground, though, or a slow build to higher stakes. The Headless Horseman is Death. Stakes don't get much higher than that. Add to that that he can't defeat our protagonists, because duh, and Crane and Abbie can't defeat him, because he's Death, and it's like…what are we doing here? How do you build a central mystery or season arc around a "problem" no one can solve? In the absence of suspense surrounding the Headless Horseman's nature and/or motivations (and that's another issue: Death is value-neutral, so why is this "character" evil?), Sleepy Hollow is trying to create conflict with Katrina's purgatorial suspension, but we've already known for weeks that she's in a magical limbo of some kind…and I don't think I'm the only one who doesn't really care how she got there. Even Crane is kind of like, spit it out already, I'm only going to be having this fever dream for so long.
We also just need to see more of the Horseman. He's cool-looking and he has a bitchy attitude. They may not have had the budget in the first six episodes; I'm pretty sure they have it now. More HH, please...or at least a web-only gag reel of him at the 7-Eleven getting a Coke Slurpee or whatever.
I really like the show. It does most of the important things right; it nails the snitty and also fond chemistry between Crane and Abbie, and it doesn't do a lot of dicking around with Captain Irving's (Orlando Jones) doubts, just gets him on board. It's certainly not "realistic" (viz. "oh hey, so the whole town's recovering already -- aaaand scene!"), but it has a good emotional ear. But, as awkward as it's going to be to give one of the characters a bunch of "we've been wrong all along DUN DUN DUN" act-out exposition walking back the central premise from the Book of Revelation? The writers need to seriously consider doing exactly that, while it's still early enough for it not to look like an Alias we're-out-of-options reset. Lead Abbie and Crane to more documents, explain that the Horseman isn't Death, he's…Seth! A guy named Seth. A ghostly guy, really pissed off. Because if he's really Death, the show has nowhere to go, and that's fine with me -- I would happily watch Abbie and Crane sitting around playing gin while Abbie explained Idol to her time-traveling friend -- but I don't think that's on the table.