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Monday, September 16, 2013

The Headless Horseman Finally Done Right? A Review of “Sleepy Hollow,” Episode 1: Pilot

Let’s get this out of the way: I am a huge fan of the Headless Horseman and the original story that created him, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” (You can download a free ebook version here.) I view him as the greatest figure in American gothic literature and re-read Washington Irving’s classic every year around Halloween.
Hell, I love him so much I wrote three novels featuring the Horseman, incorporating him into a brand-new mythology. Some people would even say I’m obsessed.  

Yet I am anxious whenever a new TV or film adaptation of Sleepy Hollow is announced. With the exception of the Disney cartoon, very few efforts to translate the story to screen work out. I know people love Tim Burton’s version, but I felt it neutered the Headless Horseman. The character was relegated to doing the bidding of a two-bit witch.  That said, Tim Burton was light years ahead of other versions, including one that starred former footballer Dick Butkus as Brom Bones. The less said about that, the better.

When I learned that Fox was making a new TV series, I was both excited and nervous. It had a great pedigree, authored by the writers of the rebooted Star Trek series, and directed by Len Wisemen (Underworld). The trailers for it also looked great. Yet it’s hard to pull off a Headless Horseman story, much less a TV series, without descending into camp. And as much as I love the concept — Ichabod Crane is pulled through time to square off against a resurrected Headless Horseman — there’s no denying the fact that it’s a ridiculous premise.

Still, TV is littered with ridiculous premises that work well — Once Upon a Time, for example. The question is whether they can make it entertaining enough to pull it off anyway.

So, after finally watching the pilot episode of Sleepy Hollow, did they do it? Do we finally have an adaptation of the Headless Horseman that truly works? In short: is the show any good?

My answer? It’s friggin awesome!

In every way, this show gets it right. The writing is tight, the lead characters are strong and sympathetic, and the action is top-notch.

The basic plot boils down to this—the Headless Horseman is really one of the four horseman of the Apocalypse, returned to Sleepy Hollow in order to start the end days. The time-traveling Ichabod is the only one who can stop him.

It works, but only because the writers have made Ichabod significantly different than he was in Irving’s original story. In that tale, he was a foppish and greedy school teacher who spooked easily. But Sleepy Hollow’s Ichabod, played with finesse by Tom Mison, kicks ass. A former British history professor — at Oxford, no less — he defected to the American side during the Revolutionary War and served as a spy for General George Washington. In the show’s opening moments, he shoots the would-be Horseman in the chest and then decapitates him when he gets up again. When Ichabod awakens in the future, he is confused but determined.

Overall, Ichabod is fantastic any time he’s on screen. Some denizens of the Internet are strangely attached to Johnny Depp’s Ichabod, but Mison beats him by miles. For a guy that’s out of time, he’s both cool and surprisingly funny, even if some of the humor comes from his fish-out-of-water perspective. I particularly enjoyed his asides about the Emancipation and the ubiquity of Starbucks (“Is there a law?”).

The show’s other lead, Abbie Mills, played by Nichole Beharie, is also engaging. It could have played like a bad buddy-cop movie to pair an 18th Century soldier with an African-American female cop, but the show’s writers do a good job of making it flow well. By providing Mills with a mysterious past, they also help deal with doubts as to why she would be sticking her neck out (so to speak) for Ichabod.

Best of all, however, is the portrayal of the Horseman. He’s everything you want and need him to be. He’s menacing, mysterious and wields a flaming axe. By the end of the episode, he’s even packing heat, using both a shotgun and a machine gun. He’s used sparingly in the first episode, but every scene he’s in really shines. He may be my favorite on-screen version of the Horseman ever made, and that’s high praise from me.

In fact, my only concern at this stage is the network the show appears on. Fox is the home of some groundbreaking sci-fi shows, including The X-Files and Fringe, both of which I loved. But those are exceptions from Fox’s habit of yanking TV shows before they have time to develop an audience. There’s Firefly or Dollhouse, just to name two recent examples. I’m already invested in the world of Sleepy Hollow, but I worry Fox will kill it before others can become equally attached.

I can only hope I’m not alone. The makers of Sleepy Hollow have created a terrific show filled with interesting characters, humor, horror and mystery. You’d have to be headless to miss it.

Note: I’m going to review every episode of Sleepy Hollow, but I will be unable to watch Ep. 2 until Sept. 26 due to work commitments. Please check back here then for my take on whether Episode 2 lives up to the promise of the pilot.

Shameless plug: If you love the Headless Horseman, be sure to check out my first novel, A Soul to Steal, which features the character like you’ve never seen him before—guaranteed. It’s just $2.99 for Kindle. (If you want a Nook version, just leave a comment on this blog and I’ll get you one.) 


  1. I found interest in this show because I've read your books (and am impatiently waiting for the third installment). I actually sat my handicapped rear on the edge of the couch leaning forward to watch it and found myself thinking about how they'll get Quinn back.

    1. That's an awesome compliment, thanks! I watched the show wondering what it would be like to see my books made into movies. Maybe one day I'll know. :)
      As for Book Three, it will be out in just 14 days now. I'm really excited about it and hope you'll enjoy it.