‘Sleepy Hollow’: Skeptics Beware

Characters collect, interpret, and decrypt, all while the countdown to Armageddon bellows like a tuba just offscreen.

Pat Robertson has been sounding almost giddy over the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, once again seeing the fulfillment of prophecy everywhere. If he turns to Fox on Monday nights, the host of The 700 Club is likely to have his forecasting bolstered not only by threats in the Middle East, but also by the End of Days welling up in Sleepy Hollow.

Season Two of the surprise hit show appears at first to move beyond last year’s cliffhanger, which left us with a combination of separation anxiety and a family feud. But then it doesn’t. I won’t give away anything except to say that the resolution of that plotline seems a bit too easy, a couple of times.

At the same time, the new season’s first two episodes promise more historically inspired conspiracies, fast-paced-action, lovers separated, unrequited love, and children turned to the dark side, all set against a backdrop of suburban survivalist tactics, catacombs, and incantations. What’s not to like?

Creators and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Phillip Iscove, and Len Wiseman cram a lot of story and theme into each episode, much of drawn from their previous work, from Alias and Fringe to the film franchise Underworld. If these shows aren’t obviously making use of an End of Days framework, they do serve as a kind of deep background for Sleepy Hollow‘s interest in occultism.

To the show’s credit, this occultism doesn’t feel nearly as menacing as the out-of-touch regular people who somehow enter this horrorscape with skepticism and denial. Some of those people, say, Captain Frank Irving (Orlando Jones), have come around to believing, in his case following a confrontation with hell last season.

Enter another skeptic, new sheriff Lena Reyes (Sakina Jaffrey). Drawn too plainly from the worst managers that Dilbert’s Scott Adams could conceive, she comes in thinking “drug lords”, her mind seemingly muddled by too much time on the border (though it’s not clear which border she defended from drug lords in New York). Did she ever visit the current Sleepy Hollow before she took the job? Maybe the demonic minions chose this location for the poor in-service training offered by the police department.

Reyes’ arrival does not disrupt what the show does well, which is to render cop show clichés in cinematography and special effects equal to those of any Bad Robot-driven drama. At its core, Sleepy Hollow is a puzzle, an alternative take on Dungeons and Dragons.

Unlike the various incarnations of American Horror Story that reveal mysteries as well as a price to be paid for history, Sleepy Hollow takes an approach more akin to National Treasure. Characters collect, interpret, and decrypt, all while the countdown to Armageddon bellows like a tuba just offscreen.

They also contend with gore, usually couched in self-aware wit. Repartee between Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and Abbie (Nicole Beharie) edges past mutual professional admiration with a fair bit of star-crossed tension as they flirt in the midst of trying to rescue Crane’s wife (Katia Winter). Their trans-historical relationship and their various quests look to be expanded this season by the introduction of a crotchety-clownish version of Benjamin Franklin (Timothy Busfield), seen in flashback.

Franklin also increases Sleepy Hollow‘s tendency to stretch our suspension of disbelief, as individuals continue to speak across purgatory through enchanted mirrors, children are possessed, and one character can taste sin. The most unbelievable element is that no one has created a social media frenzy to draw the world’s attention toward the small hamlet, no posting pictures of the headless horseman to Facebook and no WTF tweets.

What makes this unbelievable are the show’s efforts elsewhere to conjure a mash-up of then and now, a very immediate now. Social media begat the Arab Spring, focused other media on Ferguson, Missouri, and regularly reveal to strangers the socks procured by a teenage girl not 15 minutes ago.

Because Sleepy Hollow omits social media, the technology is neither a tool to help the protagonists monitor their foes, nor is it a way to focus the world’s attention of the peril emanating from the township. Like the preverbal knocking on the floor by an incorporeal being, staring into the social media void draws attention to its non-existence.

Even with selective choices of what reality to include in its fiction, Sleepy Hollow is effective, biting like a vampire, infecting with simultaneous thrill and dread. When it’s over, when the sun comes up, we might recognize its shortcomings. But while in its thrall, we can take special pleasure in John Noble acting at his bat shit crazy best. This is a pleasure I will tweet about, even if no one in Sleepy Hollow joins me.

RATING 7 / 10