Apocalypse pop or Truther gothic? The goofy, intriguing, timely allegory that is Fox's 'Sleepy Hollow'

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Image Credit: Brownie Harris/Fox

Another season, another conspiracy to end the world. That’s not the fatigue of so much Apocalypse Pop talking: In the grim noir world of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow – which premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on Fox — U.S. history is reimagined as the product of a never-ending, always stalemating supernatural shadow war, pitting truth-keeping, true believing patriots against black magic terrors bent on annihilating us from creation. At least, that’s what the “good guys” say. The bad guys have yet to speak…maybe because they’re lacking for heads. Say hello to what could be the season’s goofiest yet intriguingly subversive allegory for our troubled post-modern times.

Or not. Maybe I’m just looking for a way to make interesting a certain kind of American horror story that feels been there, done that: Sleepy Hollow — the umpteenth adaptation of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, that sacred text of homegrown Gothic lit, Halloween merchandisers, and high school English teachers — is yet one more franchise in which Fate-tapped/Fate-trapped heroes battle some ungodly or tragically misunderstood yet no less threatening Creep of the Week. (Also see, at present: Grimm, Supernatural.) You can practically hear the Doc Frankensteins who created this thing — superstar producers Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci (Star Trek, Transformers, Fringe), director Len Wiseman (Underworld, Total Recall), and writer Phillip Iscove — sewing together pieces of dead cult pop to make this monster mashup. Buffy and Angel, Kolchak, Twin Peaks, and The X-Files, The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure, Highlander, and Smallville.

And yet there is peculiar electricity crackling through this familiar bag of bones. Sleepy Hollow is, first and foremost, handsomely produced horror, good-looking and BOO! scary. Tom Mison is a garrulous gust of fun as Ichabod Crane, the chivalrous ghostbuster from the 18th century trying to stave off the end times, not to mention make sense of the 21st century. Cars? Emancipated slaves? A coffee shop on every corner? WTForsooth?! Mison’s performance suggests what might happen if an actor studied Hugh Jackman in Kate & Leopold and Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing and tried — rather successfully — to blend both. He’s well matched by Nicole Beharie as Abbie, the crackerjack, going-placed cop who decides to help Ichabod battle ghouls, figure out cellphones, and reconstruct the more anachronistic and politically incorrect aspects of Colonial Era worldview. He’s an old soul; she’s a modern woman. He’s white, she’s black. The show is self-aware about their differences and could do something dramatically interesting with them. And the Headless Horseman is an effectively fearsome force that radiates a fair amount of personality despite being facially-challenged; I dig his unrelenting Terminator air and the cocky twirl of his battle axe.

Sleepy Hollow isn’t an “adaptation” of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story; it just takes and extrapolates themes, names, motifs and places from it. The cynic in me was initially tempted to conclude that the producers simply co-opted the title and elements for branding and marketing purposes. The consumer sees “Sleepy Hollow,” sees a few images, and they immediately know everything they need to know. Yet in skimming the old yarn anew, I saw something of our fraught and hyperbolic times, and in turn, made me admire the show’s choice to borrow from it, and more, made me wonder if — much like the world of the show — there’s something sly and subversive under the surface of Sleepy Hollow. Irving tells the story of a community that resembles our culture in at least two ways: The people of Sleeping Hollow are coming off a dispiriting stretch of terror (in their case, the Revolutionary War) and enjoy amusing/abusing themselves with lurid h stories about ghosts and other ghouls passed off as real legends (think: found-footage horror flicks), like the one about a soldier who fought for the British and lost his noggin thanks to a cannonball and now rides the night searching for his head.

(A possibly relevant aside: The Headless Horseman of the legend isn’t English — he’s a German mercenary, a Hessian trooper. My continuing education tutor Wikipedia tells me these alien terrorists, these damn dirty foreign inglorious bastards, were well demonized in propaganda by pro-independence forces. Yeah, they were bad. But as bad as advertised?)

The Headless Horseman represents a few different things that are meaningful and/or useful to Sleepy Hollow…or just strike me as fun to think about: 1. The creature embodies a history lesson about the evolution and spread of Gothic horror, which began with English Romantics under the influence of German and Eastern European folklore and spread Westward from there. Sleepy Hollow, then, could be as a meta-text about the horror genre; and 2. He’s an incarnation of sinister Otherness. (But how much sinister?) In the pilot episode, we learn that this foreign agent is more than just a dirty foreign agent — he’s one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Which is kinda funny. The British brought devilish ringers to the New World to help enforce their will in a dispute over tea tariffs? Learn the lesson here, kids: Taxation without representation is not just unfair, it’s downright satanic!

Irving’s Ichabod Crane was a romantic egghead, but also gullible and superstitious. He was a geek before geek was cool, and so a man ahead of his time. He had a blurry-eyed view of the facts and head full of fiction. Interesting, then, that Irving made this man a teacher, a shaper of young minds. Anyway, Ichabod’s foolishness — assuming it is foolishness — doomed him: He mysteriously disappeared after an encounter with the Headless Horseman, who may or may not have been the town’s most popular cad, looking to punk the nerdy, nitwit who dared to make a move on his girl. The story is open to interpretation. We are left to assume that Ichabod went underground. But out of fear, or because he was, you know, killed and buried? Was Ichabod a victim of his own paranoia? Or was he the paranoid guy who just happened to be right for a change?

While we may not be able to relate to his superstition, there are those who can surely connect with its modern articulation, The Conspiracy Theorist, a lunatic to most, an avatar of clear-eyed reason to himself. Encountering this kind of crackpot-or-not character in conspiracy fiction like Sleepy Hollow reminds us how our attitudes toward this archetype have shifted and become more complicated over the years. Once, he was a counter-culture hero. Jim Garrison in JFK. Fox Mulder in The X-Files. We loved those guys. Even if or when they were wrong, we loved their dogged quest for clarity and meaning. Now, we call these kind of people “Truthers.” A bit harder to love, aren’t they? Let us note here that until recently, Sleepy Hollow co-creator Bob Orci used his Twitter feed to question the official narratives of many recent historical events, including 9/11, which upset some of his fans. While it’s valid to wonder if Truther skepticism inspires or informs Sleepy Hollow, whether in a serious, self-deprecating, or even self-critical fashion, I have no opinion on Orci’s politics (in large part because I really don’t know anything about them), and I don’t really have anything valuable to say about “Truthers.” But I am not one of them. I do have an appreciation for conspiracy theories, fictional or otherwise. Not because they express my worldview or because I agree with them, but because I sympathize with the feelings that inspire them: Confusion and anger about random suffering and systemic injustice; suspicious that we’re always being spun or lied to; that simple, reasonable, impossible want to know everything, for everything to make sense. But there is a cost to looking for conspiracies of meaning in everything, and I think it’s the same cost that comes from believing everything you’re told: Headlessness. Or: The dulling and collapse of reason. Perhaps The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is about this, too. There’s a haunting bit at the end when Irving notes that after the disappearance of the schoolteacher-hero,  “the schoolhouse, being deserted, soon fell to decay.” I infer something ominous and metaphorical in this — something about a culture that has lost its ability to cultivate informed, discerning minds; that has a head foggy with strange fantasy, if it still has a head at all.

With all of this as context, the pilot episode of Sleepy Hollow becomes a slightly more provocative read. [WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND FROM THIS POINT FORWARD.] The sheriff, played by Clancy Brown in a meaty cameo, is a closet Fox Mulder: He’s been investigating his town’s weird history — clandestinely, of course, lest anyone think this publicly elected chief no longer commands his wits. He even has his own X-files: A locked cabinet stuffed with tales of the bizarre — some linked to a scary spot in the forest that might be Ground Zero for Doomsday — that have been suspiciously suppressed, explained away, or deemed nuts. You could see him a heroic skeptic. Whether or not the sheriff intended to act heroically on his knowledge or keep scared and quiet, we don’t and won’t know: By the end of the pilot’s opening act, Sleepy Hollow kills him.

Fortunately, the cause of 21st century American enlightenment has another, more durable, bolder paladin, one that flatters geeks and conspiracy nuts alike. No longer the weak-minded New Yorker of Irving’s story, the new model Ichabod Crane is a romantic hero, a strapping, morally sound stud. He’s also British, as all great fringe-thinking detectives must be to be believed (kooky sounds more credible with an accent), a former redcoat who went native, turned rebel, and went to work for George Washington as a secret agent. Yet his mission was bigger, more cosmic than just helping the first Tea Partiers win independence: Apparently, our founding fathers — all of them occult Freemasons, of course — were actually laboring to stop a Biblically-tinged conspiracy to unleash Armageddon via demons like the Horseman. We meet both hero and villain in battle, killing each other, the Horseman gutting Ichabod, Ichabod beheading the Horseman. End of story? No. Just the latest in a series. Several score and a few years later, Ichabod — gone to ground like his wimpier literary alter-ego, but for more noble reasons — rises from his grave in a subterranean chamber; his eternal fate, it seems, is intertwined with the Horseman, who once again trots the earth. Sleeping reason roused anew to chase away his bad twin, a mounted nightmare of empty-headed insanity. Usually in these conspiracy thrillers, the hero spends the entire story or life of the series trying in vain to get the Powers That Be to take him seriously. Sleepy Hollow is Truther wish-fulfillment in at least this regard: By the end of the pilot, Ichabod pretty much has the police department and district attorney on his side.

Before everything in Sleepy Hollow becomes defined by the mythology, which occurs by the end, the pilot’s symbolic language creates some familiar complaints about post-modern culture, that we’ve become disconnected from traditional sources of meaning, for better and worse, in large part because they’ve lost trust or credibility. The Horseman beheads two metaphorically loaded archetypes: A cop (representing law and order) and a priest (representing religion). The assassinations (specifically the one against the priest) feel almost like furious judgments by the darkest of dark knights, and it got me wondering if this horrible harbinger might have more on his mind than making mayhem. Perhaps the Horseman isn’t the terrorist bogeyman he’s presented to be, and nothing is what it seems.

Unless it is.

Madness.

To bring this full circle, I’d like to see a smart, fun fantasy series that moves us beyond the usual apocalypse and conspiracy mythology and the kind of dubious pathology it represents. And who knows? Maybe Sleepy Hollow can be that story by evolving in that direction. It could easily use all of its symbols and stuff to express the notion we’ve all kinda lost our heads with crazy thinking over the past whatever-many years, so to speak, and a better future depends on gaining a more clear-eyed, reasonable, meaningful understanding of good and evil, grace and justice, past, present and future.  In other words: We need apocalypse, now. In the old school sense. We remember that “apocalypse” is actually one of those words that has taken on a colloquial meaning (the end of the world) that differs from its literal meaning (a symbolic vision; a revelation). I do wonder — conspiratorially, I guess — if Sleepy Hollow is playing knowingly, subversively with that word. Or not. We’ll see. And so we watch Sleepy Hollow for fizzy, fright night B-movie fun, and like its heroes Ichabod and Abbie, we wait for a new apocalypse — in more ways than one.

Jeff on Twitter: @EWDocJensen

Read more:
EW.com’s Fall TV 2013 hub
Fall TV 2013: EW’s Critics Pick Six
‘Hostages,’ ‘Mom,’ and more: 6 shows our TV critics are keeping an eye on

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