The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving’s story about primping schoolteacher Ichabod Crane and earthy roughrider Brom Bones, rivals for the hand of the local village heiress, is a mordant social satire in the guise of a quietly unassuming folk tale. The latest iteration opts for a different approach, taking the “legend,” an old wives’ tale about a headless veteran of the American Revolution, much more seriously. Here the headless soldier is the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, and, given that the stakes are the survival of the world, the writers don’t feel compelled to offer much in the way characterization or delve very deeply into human nature in the face of Armageddon. The horseman has returned to present-day Sleepy Hollow, and it’s going to take 18th-century time traveler Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), spunky officer Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), and a large number of dead people as collateral damage to put things right.
The pilot opens in 1781 with Ichabod decapitating the horseman, before shifting to the present, where Lieutenant Abbie Mills and Sheriff August Corbin (Clancy Brown) head out from a local diner to investigate a reported disturbance at a nearby farmhouse (spoilers herein) and Corbin promptly becomes the horseman’s first victim. Meanwhile, Ichabod surfaces after sleeping for 200 years—echoing another Irving story, Rip van Winkle—and runs into a police car, gets arrested, and meets Abbie. The rest of the episode traces the pair’s subsequent run-ins with the horseman, complete with dramatic slow-motion walks and repeated shots of police cars driving around Sleep Hollow, with the camera always positioned on the wheel, a cinematic trick that felt stale by 1975.
Despite such pervasive triteness, though, Sleepy Hollow is sometimes cleverly unpredictable. The writers upset the audience’s expectations by juxtaposing their improbably bucolic New England atmosphere—the pie-eating sheriff, the priest, and the old farmhouses—with the sedans, Starbucks, and semi-automatic guns that appear later. Like Shonda Rhimes’s aggressively melodramatic soap Scandal, Sleepy Hollow is unapologetic about what it is: 45 overexcited minutes of clichéd, hyperbolic, tackily frightening adventure. That the series doesn’t take itself seriously makes its overwrought premise and stock characters surprisingly easy—and sometimes genuinely pleasurable—to stomach.
The two leads, meanwhile, manage to take their characters entirely seriously without getting mired in stiffness. As Abbie, Beharie is driven, sarcastic, and—as a woman who demonstrates both grit and skepticism when confronted with a decapitated boss, a headless horseman, and a time traveler all in one night—the one remotely relatable person in the series, while Mison is appealingly earnest and amusingly biting in his character’s baroque, 18th-century way. “You’ve been emancipated, I take it?” Ichabod asks the African-American Abbie when they first meet. And when she tells him slavery has been abolished, he responds sniffily, “I’m pleased to hear it. I, on the other hand, remain shackled.” Their sharp banter, coupled with campy scenes of the horseman riding around town severing peoples’ heads, makes for a mutually reinforcing combination of amusing and absurd TV.