I honestly can’t tell you if FOX’s “Sleepy Hollow,” the first new show of the 2013-14 network TV season, is good or bad – and I’ve already watched the pilot episode (which airs Monday at 9 p.m.) twice. I suspect it’s bad, and that it will be proven to be bad over the course of its first season. But if it’s bad, it’s in a memorable, weird, fun way. It’s a show that goes for broke, does not apologize for its excesses and is never, ever boring. In a freshman class full of forgettable new dramas, it stands out by virtue of embracing every possible way in which it could go awry, because ultimately being boring is worse than being bad.
Created by the prolific screenwriting duo Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (“Fringe,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “Star Trek”), plus Phillip Iscove, and directed by Len Wiseman (“Total Recall”), “Sleepy Hollow” is loosely based on Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in the same way that spaceflight is loosely based on birdflight.
There’s still an Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), but now he’s not a timid school teacher, but a British soldier who turned against the redcoats and joined George Washington’s Continental army. And there’s still a Headless Horseman, only now he’s tied into an elaborate mythology about witches, time travel, the astral plane and Washington trying to prevent the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Within the pilot’s first three minutes, Crane decapitates the Horseman, is perhaps fatally stabbed, and is nearly run over by a car when he wakes up in the year 2013, where he will again tangle with the Horseman, who has by now discovered the value of automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns.
So, yeah, “Sleepy Hollow” is nuts. It is cheerfully, unapologetically nuts. It is aware of just how ridiculous it is, and it tries to cram in as many wacky ideas as can fit into the opening hour without falling into complete camp.
It helps that Mison has a light touch as Crane, who is very concerned about the world in which he finds himself and the trouble that the Horseman can cause, but isn’t so grim that he and the show become a self-parody. He has a warm rapport with Nicole Beharie from “42” as Abbie Mills, the local cop who very much wants to believe this strange visitor’s incredible story. Though both are intent on stopping the Horseman, Crane is also eager to pump his new companion for information about the modern world, from the role of African-Americans (“You’ve been emancipated, I take it?”) to why every business he recalls from the Sleepy Hollow of the 18th century is now a Starbucks. (“Is there a law?” he asks wryly.) Too many sci-fi and fantasy shows want so desperately for you to take them seriously that they become afraid of humor, and incapable of letting their characters enjoy themselves for even a moment. Despite the ludicrous events unfolding around them, Crane and Mills both come across as human beings, played by interesting actors.
The show’s mythology comes across as a step above gibberish: combine enough popular supernatural elements and prophecies to fuel many seasons – Crane at one point even refers to “a seven-year period of tribulation,” which would correlate neatly with a successful run for “Sleepy Hollow” – and worry later if all the pieces can hang together as well as they hung separately in other bits of pop culture.
“Sleepy Hollow” reminds me in a way of “Zero Hour,” the short-lived ABC drama from last winter about evil Nazi clocks (or, at least, evil, Nazis and clocks). In isolated moments, “Zero Hour” was just as absurd and confident in its lunacy as “Sleepy Hollow,” but they were too few and far between. That was a show that hedged its bets on just how bad it was willing to be, and as a result was just a drag. There aren’t many slow moments in “Sleepy Hollow,” a show that would rather risk looking silly than risk making its audience want to nap. I don’t know if the pace and number of ideas is sustainable, or if the Headless Horseman shredding a police car with small arms fire is as nutty as the show can ever go, but I’m at least curious to see what comes next. And I can’t say that about the great majority of shows debuting on the networks over the next few weeks.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org