The premiere episode of Sleepy Hollow is far more fun than it has any right to be. The show opens in 1776, as Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) fights for the Americans in a Revolutionary War battle. A mounted and masked Redcoat with an axe cuts a swath through the American forces until Crane gets in his way. Despite taking a nasty slice to the chest, he manages to behead the soldier with a single swing of his sword.
The next thing Ichabod knows, he’s waking up in a cave and the year is 2013. At the same time, a couple of police officers in Sleepy Hollow (a town of over 100,000 in suburban Westchester County, New York, the show informs us) run afoul of the same British soldier on a 911 call to a local farm. The soldier is now headless, of course, but his condition doesn’t seem to be slowing him down at all. Only Detective Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) makes it out of the encounter alive. She then duly teams up with Crane to track down the murderous Headless Horseman.
Somehow, this ludicrous premise and uneven plot elements cohere into a fast-moving, exciting hour.
The pilot episode runs through some well-worn territory as it brings Mills and Crane together, but director Len Wiseman doesn’t linger too long on the requisite time travel beats. Crane is understandably confused by his situation when the police arrest and interrogate him. But instead of scoffing at his wild tale, they hook him up to a polygraph and see that he believes everything he is saying. This is an efficient way to dispense with the unnecessary skeptics’ reactions that usually take up too much time at the start of such stories. We all know he’s telling the truth, so it’s best to get on with it. Just so, by the end of the episode, the Headless Horseman’s reign of terror through Sleepy Hollow has pretty much everyone believing Crane’s story.
Crane himself takes his predicament remarkably in stride. Yes, he’s a bit frightened of riding in a car, and he is confused by the presence of a Starbucks on every block and so, further aligns his common sense with ours). But even with such distractions, he remains dedicated to stopping the Horseman. It helps that Crane is a man ahead of his time, not so much clichéd as admirable. Not only did he defect from England to fight against the tyranny of King George, he was and is also decidedly pro-abolition. This is a necessary plot point, seeing as Detective Mills is black.
Mills is also helpfully practical-minded and sympathetic. She’s understandably terrified of the Horseman and bristles at Crane’s observation that she must be an “emancipated slave.” And it’s true that her immediate career path is foreordained, that when she says she’s leaving in two weeks for the FBI Academy, she won’t be leaving. But Beharie effectively sells Abbie’s indecision and also her gumption. Yes, the supernatural childhood incident that ruined her sister’s life is predictable genre claptrap, but Abbie and Crane are not just Mulder and Scully rearranged. They bring to bear some current political questions along with those perennially paranormal concerns.
The Horseman too serves this mix of interests, as an allusive legend and also formidable enough immediate threat. He’s genuinely imposing each time he appears. As a stand- alone episode, the premiere of Sleepy Hollow may be the most consistently entertaining piece Wiseman has directed, after having grappled with the presentation of other scary beasts in the first two Underworld movies, as well as Live Free or Die Hard and the Total Recall remake.
He and his fellow executive producers — Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, best known for their collaborations on both Transformers and Fringe — have their work cut out for them. It’s hard to imagine how they’ll sustain Sleepy Hollow‘s focus on Crane’s conflict with the Horseman week to week. The first episode intimates that other storylines are layered beneath the obvious vengeance plot, with references to secret documents and supernatural forces locked in surreptitious battle for hundreds of years, and also some overt connections to the Book of Revelations. The show goes so far as to make a very optimistic mention of seven years’ worth of confrontations before the final battle between good and evil.
The mystery of how Crane and the Horseman arrived in 2013 is solved by the end of the pilot and so it won’t be a lingering question. But all the other potential, just mentioned plot turns may prove difficult to manage over the course of a season. It may be that Sleepy Hollow figures out how to balance its action and procedural elements, the odd couple cops, and overarching story points. And that may be fun.