Watch Fox’s Sleepy Hollow at your own peril, for your dreams will surely be eerie and disquieting as your subconscious, unchained by sleep, churned up your worst fears: Could the rest of the fall television season be this tepid and dimwitted? If the very first show of the season has time-traveling headless horsemen, what must be awaiting us down the line when we’re weak and weary and defenseless? Talking babies? Real vampire housewives of Transylvania? Bill Maher reenacting great moments of Trappist theology?
Spoiler alert! None of the above. Most of the shows debuting over the next two months are intelligent or funny or both. (Asterisk alert: Fox hasn’t yet provided a screener of Junior MasterChef, which is not only potentially the worst TV show of all time but a possible candidate for United Nations designation as a war crime.) But the network programming gods have whimsically elected to lead with their lame.
Sleepy Hollow, a mash-up of Washington Irving’s spooky short stories The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle as well as CSI and the book of Revelation (Fox screenwriters are nothing if not well read), actually gets off to an interesting start with a flashback to 1776.
Ichabod Crane (British TV actor Tom Mison), a college professor fighting in George Washington’s revolutionary army, is locked in what turns out to be mutually lethal hand-to-hand combat with a British mercenary. In the next scene, he’s clawing his way out of a grave 237 years later, wondering who has resurrected him, why, and what’s this modern cult called “Starbucks.”
Alas, it turns out Crane’s enemy the mercenary has also returned to life, mysteriously minus his head, and has taken the logical career path for the decapitated: serial killing. Together with his new cop friend Abbie Mills (Nicole Behari, 42), who has had some supernatural experiences of her own, they set out to stop the mercenary.
That sounds like a full plate for a single episode, right? But we’re barely to the second commercial. What follows is a deluge of half-baked plot ploys, including ghosts, Freemason conspiracies, sinister trees, Biblical prophecy, telepathic birds, a witch civil war and police corruption. By the end, Sleepy Hollow seems less like a show than a garage sale of used story pitches.
Too bad. The show’s early moments include some nicely crafted scenes, including the awed bewilderment of a man of the 18th century — whose main reference point for black people is slavery — as he’s introduced to a 21st century African American woman wearing a badge and a gun, the unexpected fruit of a victory he died for two centuries earlier. Wait until episode two, when he meets his first Kardashian.