Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Hiatus report: Fox's SLEEPY HOLLOW

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The summer trailer of Sleepy Hollow looked so dumb-beyond-words I was prematurely sharpening my critical knives, so of course it's become one of this autumn's bigger freshman hits in the US. A healthy seven million viewers are tuning in most weeks on Fox, although the show's hidden away on the Universal Channel here in the UK—to be overlooked by everyone except TV connoisseurs. Oh, the pitfalls of this multi-channel age! We can only hope a bigger network recognise Sleepy Hollow's appeal and swoop in to outbid them for the second season. Sorry, Universal.

Now, none of this is to say I'm fully on board with Sleepy Hollow. It's only entertaining me for precisely four reasons:
  1. Tom Mison is terrific as Ichabod Crane; essentially a more personable version of Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes, with facial hair.
  2. The production values are gorgeous, totally nailing the rural American gothic tone it's going for.
  3. It has an Arrow-like sense of expediency when it comes to storytelling.
  4. It's pleasingly aware of its own preposterousness.
The latter is the key reason I'm still watching after 10 episodes, because I find it comforting whenever a pulp-y show acknowledges its inherent daftness. This was one of the core reasons I stuck with Glee for so long, because characters were always on hand to make jokey meta-comments that echoed the thoughts of cynical viewers. There's only so long that particular defence works, of course, before you just want a show to be genuinely good, without caveats.

A lot of Sleepy Hollow hasn't squared its pentangle yet. There's little sense in Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) being allowed to partner Ichabod, considering he's a lunatic to every sane person on the fringe of events. And I have no idea what Captain Irving (Orlando Jones) is doing letting the pair of them run around town chasing a Headless Horseman. But you're not expected to think too much about Sleepy Hollow.

Above all, it feels like creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci wanted to bring a version of Doctor Who and Sherlock to a mainstream US network. Ichabod is largely a hybrid of The Doctor and Cumberbatch's dry-witted Holmes, and Mison fits this role like a glove. He's more than dashing enough to enchant the female demographic in a Mr Darcy heart-fluttering kind of way; which is fitting, seeing as Mison played Charles Bingley in 2008's Lost in Austen miniseries. (Speaking of which, have you ever stopped to note how many of that show's cast are now in flashy genre programming? Mison has Sleepy Hollow, Jemima Rooper's playing Medusa on Atlantis, Alex Kingston's now famous as River Song on Doctor Who, and Tom Riley and Elliot Cowan both appear in Da Vinci's Demons.) But I digress...

Sleep Hollow is cramming a heck of a lot into its initial 13-episode order, perhaps because modern US writers are poised to wrap up their story if the axe falls early. Of course, now the show is a decent hit, so heaven knows what future seasons will deliver. It feels like they've already covered so much ground and there's still three episodes in the New Year to come.

In fact, one of the things I'm beginning to dislike about Sleepy Hollow is its restlessness. It's so deliriously told that I've started to feel a little numbed by it all. A typical episode cartwheels around in both the present and past, with copious flashbacks and big surprises that have already started to lose their impact. Once Ichabod realised he had a long lost son called Jeremy, who was orphaned and brought up by a monstrous Golem he magic'd into existence (don't ask), I had to take a step back and reconsider my position. You can overdo things with a show like this.

While it's undeniable fun, Sleepy Hollow is so unsettled and, well, bullshit-y, that I wish it would find a quieter gear and gain more confidence in its ability to spin a solid yarn that draws you in... without simply bludgeoning you into submission with its craziness.

But hey, isn't it a worse crime to be boring and tedious in the throes of youth? I think Sleepy Hollow has made its mark in a punchy and memorable way, and has found an appreciative audience who enjoy the chemistry of its lead actors and the weekly insanity. Now let's hope it dials back the all-out weirdness in favour of fuller, richer, character-based stuff for 2014... and perhaps beyond...