Good pilots are so few and far between this year — every year, honestly — that there’s a tendency to overrate the good ones, and maybe invest in them our hopes. I don’t know if Sleepy Hollow can bear the accolades that have already been heaped upon it. But while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the second coming of Buffy or Veronica Mars, it does have at least one thing in common with those great cult shows: a beguiling confidence in what it’s trying to do, and be. It’s a time-travel story, a conspiracy thriller, a buddy-cop tale, a platonic-but-with-sexual-tension love story, and sometimes a satire on modern attitudes, and it juggles these modes with sure hands. The show may revolve around a headless horseman, as per Washington Irving’s loosely adapted source, but this is no brainless time-waster. It’s witty but never overly pleased with itself, and even when it’s predictable, it’s predictable with a wink that says, “Come on — you know you needed that to happen.”
Tom Mison stars as Ichabod Crane, imagined here as a British soldier who switched sides to fight for the colonists. He’s also an early abolitionist; conveniently, this gives him free rein to team up with an ass-kicking black American woman without worrying about alienating viewers with racist banter or history lessons. In a brutal prologue, we watch Ichabod in combat, dueling with a headless Hessian mercenary. The killer’s robotic sureness evokes Tim Burton’s 1999 vision of the horseman (as well as The Terminator, and Yul Brynner’s poker-faced robot gunman in Westworld).
Crane gets frozen in suspended animation, wakes in 2013, and joins forces with Sleepy Hollow policewoman Abby Mills (Nicole Beharie of 42) for some red hot expository banter, which, at its fleetest, gave me Remington Steele flashbacks. Mison has that essential quality that Brosnan brought to Steele: He’s in on the joke, yet playing it straight. Kudos to the show for writing a real character in Mills — a tough loner who’s haunted by a mysterious (and narratively important) childhood trauma, and whose physical skills and fearlessness aren’t substitutes for a personality. In her own way, she’s as funny as Ichabod, though drier. Are you old enough to remember the relationship between William Katt and Robert Culp in The Greatest American Hero? No? Well, whatever — it’s like that; Google it if you’re curious.
Seems there’s more than one rampaging horseman — four, in fact. Four! You know what that means. Apocalypse! Apocalypse, long in the making! Dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria! Only our heroes have the mettle to get to the bottom of things and the pureness of heart to resist the eeeeeevil conspiracy, whatever it turns out to be. Who’s in on this dastardly, supernatural, world-ending plot? Maybe everyone — though to its credit, the show plays fair with us, erring on the side of hamfistedness by signaling upcoming betrayals with “You have found me out and now you must die!” looks.
The talented if underused supporting cast includes Sleepy Hollow cops played by John Cho and the great character actor Clancy Brown, whose Highlander connection is exploited very cleverly, if you’re into that sort of thing. Sleepy Hollow’s pilot was co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Fringe, Star Trek Into Darkness) and directed by Len Wiseman (the Underworld films), but it refreshingly lacks that “too many cooks” feeling that ruins many an otherwise promising pilot. There’s terse, elegantly brutal action, teasing byplay between the leads, a ludicrously convoluted mythology that suggests Grimm by way of National Treasure or The Da Vinci Code, and a sense of when to end a scene and move on. Plus, the Horseman has personality. He has no face, yet somehow you always know what he’s thinking. If that were easy, every show featuring a headless horseman would do it.