Must List 01202014
Credit: Brownie Harris/Fox

There’s a gut-level excitement, unique to television, when you watch the right actor play the right character and turn into a star. Think of Hugh Laurie on House, or Kerry Washington on Scandal, or Peter Dinklage on Game of Thrones. When the producers cast a relative unknown in a lead role, there?s a roulette-wheel thrill. They hope they’re getting lucky.

The producers of Sleepy Hollow got very lucky. When the supernatural Fox drama debuted in the fall, all anybody knew about it was the premise, so goofy it sounded like a joke that 30 Rock would?ve made: Washington Irving?s ”Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” with a Brit-cute Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman carrying an assault rifle.

It should?ve been stupid. It certainly was silly. And it worked because Sleepy Hollow went all in on two unknowns. As Crane, Tom Mison is a constant revelation. As a man imported into our time from the American Revolution, Mison always plays the show?s stranger-in-a-strange-land humor at just the right pitch. Jokes about answering machines and skinny jeans shouldn?t work, but Mison makes them sing. His Crane isn?t freaked out by the future: He?s mildly amused about, really, as if our post-industrial post-digital future were a spot of bad weather.

If Sleepy Hollow?s only contribution to society was Tom Mison, the show would be plenty impressive. But his straight-man costar Nicole Beharie is just as important. Although the show initially saddled her tough-cop Abbie Mills with a tragic backstory — mysterious blackout, criminal antics, troubled relationship with her sister, explicit statements about how Destiny Has Chosen Her — Beharie?s strength is her unflappable cool.

She sells the show’s goofy concept by making you believe that it?s perfectly natural. She solves mysteries with a time traveler? They have to save the world? George Washington was a zombie? The crap she doesn?t give makes Beharie Mison’s ideal sparring partner. At one point in the two-hour finale, Ichabod and Abbie got into one of their already-trademark Conversations About The Modern World. Ichabod wasn?t too impressed by social networking, or by the vulgarization of the term ”friend.” ”Aristotle would be unimpressed,” he said. Abbie responded bluntly: ”Yeah, well he?s dead, too.”

You live for those moments, the little throwaway repartee. The rest of the show is a bit of a mess, albeit an invigorating mess. Structurally, Sleepy Hollow is very much in the tradition of The X-Files, although it?s probably more accurate to compare it to Fringe, the low-rated much-beloved paranormal Fox drama (co-created by Sleepy Hollow producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.) Hollow?s individual episodes don?t quite have the same adventurous spirit as its forbears. The show had problems recapturing the kitchen-sink adrenaline of its season premiere, and several season-1 episodes defaulted to same trope routine. Flashback to Colonial Era: Check! Helpful appearance by imprisoned witch-wife and/or deceased mentor figure: Check! Urgent ticking-clock need to obtain a mystical lantern/prayer beads/map: Check!

But the show?s vibe is just right. The visuals are rich. The creatures all have a crunchy physicality. The ninth episode, ”Sanctuary,” was a fairly standard haunted-house tale, but it was worth it just for the sight of the monster, a tree-demon that suggested a goopier Swamp Thing. In a vengeful rage, Ichabod chopped the thing to pieces with an axe, covering himself in blood. It was the kind of thing that Guillermo Del Toro always fits into his movies: A moment when the monster seems less monstrous than the human. You got the same feeling whenever John Cho showed up: His demonic henchman was a pitiful figure, dying in episode 1, resurrected in episode 2, steadily decomposing ever since.

Sleepy Hollow got better in its back half, helped along by the addition of Fringe’s John Noble as a lovable and eccentric Sin Eater. SPOILER ALERT: The season finale revealed that he was actually War, everyone?s favorite Horseman of the Apocalypse. He?s also — megatwist! — Ichabod?s son. That revelation came at the end of a two-hour finale that packed in an extended trip to purgatory, an offhand conversation about the moral implications of the creation of the atomic bomb, and also did we mention George Washington was a zombie? The finale felt like a confident big swing: It was the show proving that it could deliver on its madcap promise, and it was the kind of wonderful ”See You Next Fall!” cliffhanger that used to torment X-Files fans all summer long.

If the first season was hit or miss, the finale felt most of all like a throat-clearing — like the show, having built a rock-solid foundation, will really pop in season 2. The implication that Noble will stick around in some Big Bad capacity is exciting, and it might give the show a bit of structure. The big villain so far has been Moloch, a bargain devil with a Spooky Voice who wants to conquer everything just because. Noble, conversely, has all kinds of exciting supervillain-origin motivations — vengeance against his parents, two centuries spent buried alive. The show has always been fun, but Noble?s speech had the lysergic intensity of American Horror Story.

The X-Files and Fringe at their best had Big Ideas on their mind. X-Files was a freefloating paranoid fantasy about not just the government but the whole American experiment; Fringe went macro and micro, with an alternate-universe story arc that doubled as a parable of self-discovery. Despite frequent talk about defying Destiny, Sleepy Hollow doesn’t really have a greater point. Maybe it will eventually. (Fringe wasn’t really Fringe until the end of its second season.) Or maybe it doesn’t want to. Overstuffed with the kind of high concepts that so often sunk serialized dramas in the last half-decade, Sleepy Hollow feels lighter than air. It doesn?t have a head, but it knows how to ride. Finale Grade: A. Season Grade: B+

Episode Recaps

Sleepy Hollow
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