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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Brilliant Insanity of "Sleepy Hollow": A Review of Episode 5, "John Doe"


If there's one consistent criticism of my first novel, it's that I tried to do too much. The book has the Headless Horseman, a Celtic myth and a serial killer all wrapped up into one big package. I think it works (obviously), but there's a certain kind of reader that disagrees, sometimes vigorously.

What's "Middle English" for Crazy Town?
The only thing I can assume is that if those readers came across Fox's "Sleepy Hollow," their heads would explode. The writers of this show clearly aren't worried about tossing too much at the viewer. In just five episodes, we've had: a time-traveling Ichabod Crane, his witchy wife (who is trapped in another dimension), a gun-toting Headless Horseman, an undead zombie cop, a resurrected 18th century witch, a dream-traveling Native American spirit, a ghost cop, a demon named Moloch, a band of still-thriving Hessians anxious to raise the dead and – wait for it – the lost colony of Roanoke.

Here’s the strangest thing of all: somehow the show still manages to work. “Sleepy Hollow” is consistently entertaining with a great mix of humor and horror. It’s unpredictability and sheer willingness to throw anything at the wall to see what sticks is part of its charm. One criticism you can’t level at the show is that it’s either boring or unwilling to take risks. In fact, it’s easily my favorite show on TV right now, in part because I never know what the hell will happen next.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of head-scratching moments. The ending to Episode 5, “John Doe,” is rather bizarre. Ichabod and Abbie spend the episode’s final moments trying to save a boy who – without giving anything away – doesn’t actually need saving. And the colony of Roanoke, around which the episode is based, disappears again. Or was never there at all. Or something. Indeed, the show never really bothered to explain why the lost colony had relocated to the back woods of New York. Because it could, I guess.

But no matter. We could spend a lot of time poking holes in the plot of various episodes. For example, why does Captain Irving, Abbie’s boss, refuse to listen to her about how to stop a plague and then – five minutes later – willingly go along with her insane plan, which involves taking Patient Zero to the backwoods for no discernable reason? How did the Headless Horseman learn to use automatic weapons so quickly? Why is Ichabod still wearing 18th century clothing when he’s been living in the 21st century for at least three weeks? Did his wife leave some extra clothes in the cave where she buried him? Also, why is there Spanish moss growing in the local graveyard, given that Spanish moss grows in the south and this show takes place in New York?

But if such questions worry you, you’re missing the point. The show is just so damn fun.

Much of the credit for this goes to Ichabod, who is both smartly written and well-acted. Most of my favorite moments from any show center around his take on the modern world. In Episode 4, it was his conversation with the OnStar representative, who wept when he told his story of lost love over the centuries. In Episode 2, it was his reaction to the tax on baked goods. In “John Doe,” it was his frustration with the plastic packaging his razor blade came in. (“What is this impenetrable barrier?”) His comments are funny, but Ichabod himself is not played for laughs. Most of the jokes seem on us and our modern world, not him.   

I keep washing the same outfit over and over.
Ichabod follows the first rule of any good story: he’s just interesting to watch. He’s smart, charismatic and while I have no idea why the police force is using an ostensibly crazy person as a consultant, I also don’t really care.

Abbie Mills, his partner, has a bit of a thankless job, given that she’s the straight man to Ichabod. Still, I find her character intriguing and the backstory they’ve built for her is both mysterious and interesting.

Perhaps most impressive is that the show’s writers have managed to take us to crazy-town without also descending into camp. The problem with any supernatural show is the need to take itself seriously, but at the same time give a wink and a nod to viewers who know the plots are preposterous. Sleepy Hollow manages that with aplomb.

Overall, “John Doe” was probably the weakest entry into the series to date, partly because it tried to do too much, even by its own standards. Finding the lost colony of Roanoke is epic; tying it to a virus, however, just felt forced. And the ending, as I mentioned, was confusing and odd. But even on its off days, Sleepy Hollow is damn good TV.

It’s fitting, I suppose, that it now goes on a three-week hiatus due to baseball playoffs before coming back with a show that promises the return of the Headless Horseman (who has not been seen since the pilot episode). After all, this is one TV series that – whatever its faults – is always swinging for the fence.

  
For a limited time, The Sanheim Chronicles, a trilogy of novels that feature the Headless Horseman in an entirely new mythology, are on sale. Book One, A Soul to Steal, and Book Two, Band of Demons, can be purchased for just 99 cents! Book Three, Give the Devil His Due, was just published on Oct. 1.

Find out why the books have been called the “perfect” novels for Halloween.  


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