Sleepy Hollow’s Secret Formula: A Bunch of Great Shows Rolled Into One

This fall TV season is not a fall of success stories. There was no megasmash, no Zeitgeist-gobbling game-changer, no obvious future Emmy darling. But there is Sleepy Hollow, Fox’s undercover hit, the crazy pile-on of a dozen supernatural stories that, somehow, totally works and is growing in popularity. Revolutionary War soldier Ichabod Crane suddenly wakes up in 2013 Westchester County, where he discovers he’s being hunted by the dangerous, spree-killing Headless Horseman. The only person who believes him, at least initially, is local police lieutenant Abbie Mills, who enlists Ichabod to help her investigate some of the other supernatural goings-on in town.

After a brief break for the World Series, Sleepy Hollow returns tonight, and even if you didn’t jump in at the beginning, it’s worth climbing aboard the bandwagon now. Because the show channels a whole slew of familiar — favorite — characters and dynamics.

Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) is part Dana Scully, part Olivia Benson: The Early Years Lieutenant Mills is one of Sleepy Hollow’s up-and-coming cops. She was looking to begin training as an FBI agent on the pilot, but instead she sticks around to work with Ichabod, kinda-sorta avenge the death of her mentor (who was killed by the Headless Horseman) and also get to the bottom of her own supernatural experiences. Like Scully, she’s hard to impress and hard to intimidate; like Benson, she has a lot of layered shirts and sharp-looking jackets that expose her police badge just so. And like Scully and Benson, she has that underlying personal connection to what she’s investigating: When Abby was a child, she and her sister saw a strange creature in the woods. Her sister stuck by that story and was eventually institutionalized, while Abby lied and said they didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is part House, part Sherlock, part Leopold from Kate & Leopold. Ichabod is a Revolutionary War soldier whose witch wife cast a spell on him, and now he’s awoken in 2013 as handsome and sardonic as when he worked for George Washington. He’s the dashing genius with access to information no one else has — partially because he’s from the past, so esoteric history is simply his day-to-day knowledge base, but also because he was a professor, so he also happens to know a lot of things. He’s maybe a little self-important, but he’s also funny and loyal.

There’s a generalized sexual energy reminiscent of early True Blood. Ichabod and Abbie have some vibes. But Ichabod is (happily, it seems) married to Katrina, a powerful witch he can only see in certain hallucinatory states. Abbie’s ex-boyfriend Luke (Nicholas Gonzales) is also on the police force, and he’s the jealous type. Frustration abounds!

And the father-figure issues of Lost. On the first episode, Sherrif Corbin (Clancy Brown) — Abbie’s aforementioned mentor — was killed by the Headless Horseman, who in this mythology is one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. Abbie eventually discovers that Corbin had been investigating the supernatural occurrences in Sleepy Hollow for some time, and was already aware of the town’s long history of witchcraft, demonic interference, and unexplained phenomena. Are there people at the police department trying to bury his work? Of course! Is Abbie’s devotion to her former partner strong enough to push through those obstacles? Of course again!

Plus some of the campy self-awareness of American Horror Story …  AHS is much more wild and crazy than Sleepy Hollow. But Sleepy definitely takes AHS’s more-is-more approach, and apparently learned from Ryan Murphy et al how far a little self-deprecation can get you. Scary shows can get bogged down in self-seriousness, but Sleepy has a sarcastic sense of humor that keeps things from getting too gloomy.

… and the small-town spookiness of the American Gothic. American Gothic was a one-season 1995 Fox supernatural drama set in a small southern town with a super-evil sheriff and traumatized townsfolk and all kinds of eerie stuff. It was deeply, lingeringly creepy — so much so that almost twenty years later I can still hear Sarah Paulson as the borderline-catatonic older sister cooing the show’s freaky tagline, “someone’s at the door!” That series had an everything-is-secretly-connected backstory, as does Sleepy Hollow. The off-kilter eeriness, through occasional body horror (aaaah, his neck snapped!) or dreamy altered states (Abbie and Ichabod visit a shaman together and have a mutual hallucination of sorts) scream mid-nineties TV horror boom.

Sleepy Hollow’s Secret Formula