Overthinking the Fall 2013 TV Lineup: Sleepy Hollow

“Sleepy Hollow,” enjoyable more for the ways it is bad than for the ways it is good, has already been picked up for a second season. Why?

Out of the new TV shows I’ve been watching this fall, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is probably my favorite. Naturally, it’s been struggling to find an audience. Sleepy Hollow, on the other hand, which so far I would describe as “adequate,” and enjoyable more for the ways that it is bad than for the ways that it is good, has already been picked up for a second season. Thus runs the world away. That’s not to say that there aren’t good things about the show. I am watching it, after all! I particularly like the interaction between the two leads, the exactly-once-per-episode jokes about how Ichabod Crane doesn’t understand what life is like here in the future, and the seriously creepy visual design. And good or bad, the show is well worth examining as a case study  in the way that patterns of influence shape stories over time.

Protip:  Sleepy Hollow is about 1000% better if you imagine that Ichabod Crane is played by Nick Cage.

His outfit and haircut show that he’s old-timey — which means, I guess, that he never cuts his hair or changes clothes for the duration of the series?

First things first: “small group of overmatched and improbably hot people battle a series of fairy-tale monsters in a modern small-town setting” is officially a TV genre now, just like the sitcom and the police procedural. The codifying text here is Buffy, obviously (with the X-Files as an important precursor), but when Buffy came out is was charming in part because it didn’t fit into any model of what TV was supposed to be like. And even Angel and Charmed, which were blatant attempts to recapture Buffy’s magic, always felt more like commentaries on the horror genre than like genre texts in their own right. But with Supernatural, and then Grimm, and now Sleepy Hollow, I feel like that’s changed. It’s the diffrence between Leprechaun and Leprechaun in Space, if that makes any sense? Sleepy Hollow is so transparently the kind of show that it is… big shadowy monster in the foreground, little monster of the week based on random and freely-adapted folklore, secret clubhouse where the heroes hang out and consult old manuscripts… you know the drill. It even has a hero with vaguely defined superpowers:  Crane starts as a fish out of water who doesn’t know how he got to the modern era, and knows as little about magic as his modern partner. But four episodes in, he’s already had a chance to show off his extensive occult knowledge, his eidetic memory, and his knowledge of Middle English. (Protip for the show’s writers:  Roanoke Colony was founded in 1585, two hundred years after Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, and seven years before Shakespeare wrote Richard III. But whatever.) He’ll probably reveal that he knows ye olde kunge-fue in due course. As demonslayer procedurals go, this is entirely formulaic… and although there’s a nod to the French and Indian war, and a nod to the Boston Tea Party, and a nod to the lost colony of Roanoke, this wafer-thin colonial gloss never matters very much. It never distracts you from the underlying operations of the genre. (And really, that’s how you know that it is a genre to begin with.)

The Hessian, just before his encounter with Crane. Note the absence of horse, and the presence of head. At this point, he's the "Man." (He does have an axe, though, which entered the Horseman's iconography with the Tim Burton movie.)

The Hessian, before meeting Crane. Note the absence of horse, and presence of head. At this point, he’s the “Man.”

The other thing that’s interesting about this is the way that the show departs from its source text. In the TV show, Ichabod Crane is a British convert to the colonial cause, who, in a Revolutionary war battle, gets axed in the chest and then beheads a mysterious, tattooed-and-branded Hessian mercenary who turns out to be none other than Death, as in the horseman from the Revelation of St. John. Crane’s wife, who is a witch — did I mention that she’s a witch? no? well, that’s okay, because neither does the show, until it’s convenient —  casts a spell binding Crane’s life to the Horseman’s life (Death’s life?!), and sealing both of them into suspended animation until the early 2010s, when a shadowy secret society, hilariously composed of the descendants of the other Hessian mercenaries, uses dark magic to revive the Horseman, thus accidentally reviving Crane as well. And there’s a prophecy, and the rest of the Apocalyptic Bridle Club and Horse Fancier Association, and a bunch of witches, and the Phoenician blood-god Moloch is rattling around somewhere in there… like I said, we’re in familiar territory.

But oh my goodness, what would poor Washington Irving have thought of this?

Lest we forget, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a very, very different kind of ghost story. Aside from that one awesome chase scene, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” isn’t really horror at all. (H.P. Lovecraft, who knew from secret societies and apocalyptic demons, wrote of Irving that “most of his ghosts are too whimsical and humorous to form genuinely spectral literature.”) In the story, Ichabod Crane is a milquetoast schoolteacher who falls in love with the wrong girl, and either A) is eaten by ghosts, B) is driven off by the girl’s nefarious alpha-male ex-boyfriend, or C) it’s totally B, guys, honestly, it’s not even really ambiguous. The Horseman is not a horseman of the apocalypse — he’s not even really the Horseman! And Crane, rather than fighting off an escalating series of demons and racing against time to solve a centuries old puzzle, either runs and dies or runs and keeps on running. To an extent, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a grimly pessimistic tale of mankind’s inability to suppress its baser impulses. Crane is knowledge and piety; the ex-boyfriend, Brom Bones, is superstition, parochialism, and general loutishness. Whether’s Crane’s defeat is supernatural or not, the important thing is that he is defeated, and speaking as a bookish pedant, I’ve always found that tragic. But from another point of view, it could be seen as a rousing defense of parochial loutishness, smugly demonstrating the superiority of the old country ways to Ichabod’s newfangled book learning. And, with the horseman thus fondly regarded, it could be seen as a story about how spooky folktales are important as stories… how they give shape to our experience, and how, through narrative, our lives become part of the fabric of our culture, whether we want them to or not. For in the coda of the tale, Crane, who has been run out of town by ghost stories, becomes a ghost story in his own right.

It’s a symbol of his further defeat, perhaps, that in the Sleepy Hollow TV show Crane is the Mulder to his modern partner’s skeptical Scully. Pragmatism, skepticism, and rationality, in these shows are always wildly irrational. Every time anyone expresses doubt, Crane’s nostrils flare:  “Don’t you realize what we’re dealing with here? Don’t you remember what we saw last night?” “Well, yeah,” says his partner. “Then why won’t you believe every cockamamie theory that I or anyone else ever suggests ever?!” bellows Crane. “If you don’t implicit believe that magic is real, then the Horsemen of the Apocalypse have already won!” The dialogue is paraphrased, but it’s not that far off. And really, as an Oxford professor, Crane ought to be able to spot the flaw in that syllogism a mile away.

The Tim Burton movie occupies an interesting halfway point in the development of the legend. Here, as in the show, Crane is a badass lawman facing down a supernatural menace with the help of some white magic and a heaping spoonful of sheer damn manliness. But at the beginning of the film, although he’s still a cop, he’s a pointedly modernist and intellectual sort of cop, fussing around with his steampunk CSI accessories and whatnot. Eventually, confronted by evil beyond his ken, he has to abandon this part of his personality and become a more ordinary movie hero kind of character, acting on instinct and passion rather than reason — which is, come to think of it, a fairly typical Tim Burton plot structure, although the characters don’t always manage the transition. Anyway, my point here is that the Crane from the movie begins as the Crane from the short story (sort of), and ends up as the Crane from the TV show (again, sort of).

I wanted to use the Durer woodcut, but it turns out that the Death in that one isn't really recognizably Death once you shoop his head out.

The problem with conflating these two archetypes, in a nutshell.

Finally:  I really, really hope that Sleepy Hollow gets picked up for a third and then a fourth season. Because I really, really hope they have to play the absurd plotline that they’ve set up for themselves all the way out to the end. Why? Well, the show’s already got two major villains (the Horseman and Moloch), but it’s way too early yet for us to have seen the REAL hand pulling the strings. There’s got to be a bigger bad. And who could that be? Well, since we’ve been talking about syllogisms, I’ll put it to you this way.

  1. Every major event of the Revolutionary War was part of America’s struggle against a cabal of satanists trying to bring about the biblical apocalypse.
  2. One major event of the Revolutionary War was America’s struggle against the British monarchy.
  3. ????

(I leave the conclusion as an exercise for the reader.)

22 Comments on “Overthinking the Fall 2013 TV Lineup: Sleepy Hollow”

  1. wendyd #

    I love this show and spend way too much time overthinking it. Although, none of my overthinking has anything to do with the source material. It’s all delicious nonsense; don’t care.

    So much more interested in the language and the ways that they are showing that Ichabod is equipped to deal with the task at hand. Like the eidetic memory. They want to show that he has a fantastic memory and they have him claim that it’s eidetic. He can’t say photographic, obviously, but he can’t say eidetic either, because that wasn’t a term in 1781.

    He says he was taken to triage, meaning, I guess, a field hospital. I understand triage sounds better, but the term/concept didn’t really take off until, like WW1, maybe. He probably should have said hospital, but that means something to us now that would seem wrong.

    He says motorized carriages to refer to cars. I don’t think he would know what a motor is any more than a car, so why not use the term as he was introduced to it? Sure, to show that he’s a man out of time.

    Anyone else spending too much time on this?

    And yes, B99 is an awesome show… that’s on opposite Agents of Shield. I keep waiting for that show to get better.


  2. Seth #

    So one of the elements of the show that I think is interesting though I’m not really sure how to analyze it (or actually really means anything), is that quite obviously the story of the Headless Horseman doesn’t actually exist in the world of Sleepy Hollow.

    After all, the first episode had a headless guy riding a horse in Sleepy Hollow. If the story existed, then someone would have mentioned it. At the very least the skeptics on the police force would have said something, “of course our serial killer is dressed up like a headless horseman, we live in Sleepy Hollow. That just proves it’s just a crazy person and not the supernatural.”

    What I do think it points to in general is a question in “urban fantasy” stories in general about what stories actually exist in the real world, and what the characters in a world could plausibly believe based on that. Buffy established that the Dracula stories did exist in that world (in a form we’d recognize), but that Dracula also existed. Vampire Diaries ends up mocking Twilight (so we know those exist) and the vampires themselves exhibit many of the traditional weaknesses of vampire. But does Dracula exist? Are the books and movies about vampires based on real events, or was it still someone taking old folklore and spinning a story. As the protagonists begin encountering these “myths” (as the genre always requires “normal” characters to begin to interact with things they didn’t know exist) do the stories that exist actually tell them stuff?

    Some urban fantasy addresses this. In the Dresden Files, the Black Court of vampires was mostly destroyed after 19th century vampire literature exposed their weaknesses to the world. In others it’s completely glossed over, for example Twilight mentions it only to explain that it’s all wrong…except for what isn’t.

    A kind of random element of the show to focus on, but that was my biggest takeaway from the first episode. And one of the only interesting things about the show I bring up with people, because as you said it follows the genre conventions very closely.

    Oh yeah, and Brooklyn 99 is awesome. :)


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      That is interesting. And sort of unnecessary, right? What with all the supernatural shenanigans, it’s almost weirder that there isn’t some kind of legend surrounding the horseman. And it’s also inconsistent. With everything else — Roanoke, the Tea Party, witch burnings — the modern characters are like “so that’s what that was all about,” rather than “wait, so you’re saying they threw the tea in the HARBOR?!”


      • Seth #

        And you’ve caught one of the genre conventions that’s always bugged me a little bit. Historical events always seem to have a secret meaning that only becomes evident after you know the supernatural exists.

        “Oh yeah, the Tea Party was just a distraction so we could sneak the secret box out of Boston.”

        “The Salem Witch Trials were actually to hunt down real witches.”

        I’m blanking on other examples from shows and stuff but the more elaborate the setting (or longer running the series) the more things become just a plot of the supernatural. So the actual historical understanding of those events instead merely becomes the Masquerade hiding them.

        So the French Revolution didn’t start as a result of economic strife, poor leadership, and the rise of enlightement thinking amongst the populace (amongst other causes). It was because a cabal of vampire hunters initiated events in order to destroy the aristocratic vampires that lived amongst the french nobility.


  3. Gab #

    And of course, you post this the week there isn’t a new episode- and in the last one, there was a reference to his wardrobe and that he should prolly consider some contemporary duds. >.<

    I thought there could be a drinking game- every time a Founding Father gets name-dropped, take a drink, double if it's GW himself. Then a friend showed me this: http://25.media.tumblr.com/95fad0b34fc6d6f01a67fec487bf98bc/tumblr_mub5t1jxmG1qexa0fo2_r1_1280.png

    So joking aside, the main thing keeping me going with the show is that there are multiple persons of color that are well-written and complex in the cast- not just Craine's partner, but her boss, as well as her former lover in the department. The plot itself may be ridiculous, but its blatant self-awareness makes that more than tolerable; I'd say even delightful.

    My question is this, and I'm asking in earnest: Would any of us be interested in it if it wasn’t campy and entirely self-aware. Even Buffy, your example as the first sure-fire member of this urban fantasy genre, was highly campy and self-aware. Would it work if it was entirely serious and grounded in realism and all that kinda jazz? I lean toward no, but I suppose if made well enough in all areas (from production design to script to costumes to acting to cameras to sound), it would be good. But then would it even fit the genre? Does camp come with it, or is it just coincidence that any shows in the genre thus far have been campy and self-aware?

    Your summary of the dialogue is actually a great example of that self-awareness- Icahbod is essentially always shouting, “Don’t you realize you’re in a Bible story?!”

    There was a moment of outrage when Ichabod learns what happened to the indigenous population- and while the chance for a lot more social commentary was lost there, I wonder if they’ll show him get outraged or perplexed by other things, like corporatism, poverty, education, women’s rights… I can imagine him being totally baffled when/if Abbie says something about her need to vote, or being perplexed at the idea of corporations being people.


    • Seminymous Coward #

      It’s unlikely Crane would find corporations being people odd. The conceptual and etymological root of incorporation is the creation of a legal person out of a collection of humans, persisting over variations in those humans over time. That dates back to the Roman Empire, and Crane’s frame of reference should have several prominent examples. It’s assigning those legal people a set of rights nearly matching humans’ that would be novel.


      • Gab #

        Well I could see him going either way, actually.

        They’re presenting him as even more ideologically “American” than the men he keeps name-dropping in each episode by showing his uber-progressivism in examples like his attachment to the indigenous people, or his strong abolitionist beliefs. And recall, the founders were elitists, and fear of collective rule was precisely what led to the weak (basically non-existent) central government of the Articles of Confederation and then the republicanism (as in representatives selected by a few people, not the political party) of the Constitution (in things such as the indirect election of both houses of Congress, and the Electoral College). Part of current American rhetoric is that of all nations in the world, we’re the most progressive, the most forward-thinking, the most innovative, and especially the nation with the most individual freedoms of any other country. If he’s essentially a founding father on steroids, they cwould try to wash over the elitism and frame current campaign financing (through his speech) as a way for every little person to be heard, just as Jefferson would have wanted, hoo-ra! Or, they could frame it as Washington would never have stood for this!


        • Gab #

          Gah, and by “both houses of Congress,” I meant “the Senate”…


    • An Inside Joke #

      I doubt he’d be shocked at Abbie voting either – we haven’t heard his take on women’s rights yet, but given the fact that the went out of its way to clarify that Ichabod is an abolitionist, I feel like they’re going to be sure to write him as a very progressive character who doesn’t believe anything that would be unpalatable to modern viewers.

      As for your question of whether a show in this genre could exist without being self-aware, I wonder if Grimm would fit that category. I stopped watching after season 1, so I can’t comment on recent episodes, but the first season seemed to be very sincere.


      • Gab #

        Oh, I actually pictured something like this.

        [Abbie enters the car with an “I VOTED” sticker; Ichabod sees the sticker and double-takes.]
        Abbie: What’s your problem now?
        Ichabod: You voted?
        Abbie: Yes…?
        Ichabod: In what election?
        Abbie: The city council election they were talking about at the station, remember? [Abbie goes on a slight rant about how X candidate would have been terrible for the department for ABC policies, so she had to get her vote in there to keep him from getting a seat on the council]
        Ichabod: HAH! I kept telling [name drop Founding Father] that in order for America to be freer and better than Britain, she’d need to allow all of her people to have their voice be heard in elections, and that included women. He seemed receptive to the idea, but I imagine hearing a woman speak with as much political knowledge and insight as you would have swayed him. Perhaps that happened after my encounter with the Hessian, and now here you are, voting in a free election, how marvelous!
        Abbie: Well, actually, black men weren’t allowed to vote until 1868, and women weren’t allowed until 1920. So, sorry, I guess [same FF name] never met a woman with a brain after all. [under her breath] As if we didn’t exist back then…?
        Ichabod: I’m sorry, did you say something else?
        Abbie: Nope, let’s get outta here.


      • Count Spatula #

        This show definitely benefits from being self-aware and campy. It’s pretty dumb, but also really fun, like a Saturday morning kid’s show with more corpses. If the two leads weren’t quite so perfect, I think this show would fall flat on it’s face.

        And it seems to me that the number of flaws makes it all the more endearing, because I can’t help but feel there’s something ironic about pointing out all the historical inaccuracies in a show about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a time-travelling revolutionary. I can’t say it’s the best show on television, nowhere near, but I certainly look forward to watching it every week (:'()

        And I feel like S.H.I.E.L.D needs to take a leaf out of their book both in terms of campy self-awareness and ethnic minorities – all but one of the villains of the week so far have been PoCs. And it’s taking the whole Marvel franchise for granted, and failing to deliver a unique and interesting plot of it’s own, which is a major shame.


  4. Adrian #

    I’ve never watched the “Supernatural” genre of TV shows, so while I’m sure “Sleepy Hollow” fits in with them perfectly, what struck me most about it was how much it seems to be aping BBC’s “Sherlock,” just with added magic. The music is clearly inspired by it, and then I noticed that the protagonists are (1:) a tall, manic, British-accented, long-coated, basically crazy person who rubs everyone the wrong way but always seems to have the answer, and (2:) someone who is irritated by him. Being a modernized adaptation of early 19th century prose is just gravy at that point.

    That said, if the entire show was Mills and Crane discussing and explaining all the differences between the worlds of 1781 and 2013, I would watch that show every week.


    • wendyd #

      There does seem to be a trend toward having an eccentric male lead paired with a white/ethnic grounded female. Like Mulder/Scully, Castle/Beckett, Jane/Lisbon, Sherlock/Watson (US)… and on and on. Seems to have really become a formula of late.


      • Count Spatula #

        Don’t forget Doctor Who, also.


      • lofgren #

        Don’t forget Bones. Ooh, gender swap!


  5. Shana Mlawski OTI Staff #

    Regarding the caption for the first photo, there’s probably some overthinking to be done about the big civil war going on among Sleepy Hollow fans. Half are constantly saying, “When is he going to cut his hair and get new clothes? This is getting ridiculous!” And the other half is saying, “If anyone touches his hair or clothing I am done with this show FOREVER.”

    I don’t know what to say about this split in the fandom other than that I find it hilarious. And that I’m on the side of the pro-olde tyme clothes people. That coat is my everything.


    • Gab #

      The compromise is on a hipster retro-chique. Give him one of those long, pretty, double-breasted coats, with a crisp collared shirt…

      Actually, Adrian’s comment about the Sherlock parallel… If he just dressed like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, he’d prolly be fine. And all he’d need to do is trim the hair and put it in a ponytail all the time.


      • Adrian #

        Heck, they could have a whole episode where the B plot is Mills trying to get him to dress like a normal person, Crane resisting because “it’s just not me”, and in the end they settle on some hipsterish compromise. That might satisfy everyone.


  6. Peter Tupper #

    I wouldn’t consider “The X-Files” to be part of the urban-fantasy genre. Urban-fantasy juxtaposes the mundane and the supernatural, but while the supernatural world is hidden, it is known and knowable by certain people. There are experts to consult, rules to learn, creature vulnerabilities to exploit, etc.

    “The X-Files” presents a hidden world, but it is one that is difficult or impossible for the protagonists to “know”. Mulder and Scully are constantly asking each other, “What am I looking at?” Mulder may personally witness the supernatural, but he can’t escape the possibility that he has misinterpreted what he sees, or has just been duped by people posing as experts or witnesses. These epistemological issues are part of what made the show crackle (and are what the show lost in later seasons, but that’s another topic).


    • lofgren #

      It’s just urban fantasy from another perspective. After all, there are people, from the very beginning, who know about the supernatural and are able to control it and interact with it in a predictable manner. It’s just that none of them want to talk to Mulder.


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