There's one fact about "Sleepy Hollow" that needs to be dealt with right at the outset: It's bonkers.
But "Sleepy Hollow" (9 p.m. EDT Monday on Fox), as Oprah might say, owns it. It doesn't try to hide from the fact that bringing Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman into the modern age is a little bit loony, or, all right, a lot loony. Somehow or other, though, it manages to have a good time with this crazy premise and create some real scares, too. I enjoyed the "Sleepy Hollow" pilot -- as much as you can enjoy something this nuts -- and I have no problem admitting it.
But my enjoyment was tempered by the fact that I have absolutely no idea how the show will sustain its premise. The chances of "Sleepy Hollow" sticking the landing over the course of a season range between slim and none.
High-concept premises are one of the bigger trends in the mostly pallid crop of fall drama pilots: Quite a few shows ("Hostages," "The Blacklist," "The Tomorrow People," "Lucky 7," "Almost Human") take big swings with their basic concepts, and in theory, that's an idea that I can get behind. When a network wants to take a small swing, it puts Blair Underwood in a remake of "Ironside," which critic Andy Greenwald accurately characterized in a recent conversation as NBC's most promising fall comedy.
But the broadcast networks hear the not-so-distant footsteps of the basic cable, pay cable and streaming competitors who are trying to take their lunch money, and they are responding in their own half-bold ways. As they tend to do, the networks are taking away the wrong lessons -- people are buzzing about "Orange Is the New Black" and "Orphan Black" because their creators had specific visions and developed memorable characters, not because the shows accessorized with lumbering mythologies and/or "name" actors. But the networks are at the point where they're willing to try weird stuff that might be semi-serialized and involve flaming swords, which brings us back to "Sleepy Hollow."
The Headless Horseman's sword isn't actually on fire (though I'm hoping it will be by mid-season, if the show makes it that far). No, HH's weapon of choice is superheated enough to cauterize the wounds he inflicts on those who cross his path when he's had a bad day (and when you've just woken up from a 250-year nap, every day is a really bad day).
Like the Headless Horseman, Ichabod Crane does not feel refreshed from his epic nap, and I have to hand it to Tom Mison: He plays Crane's confusion, urgency, anger and bemusement note perfectly. Most characters in "Sleepy Hollow" comment on how nuts Crane sounds (telling people that your boss is George Washington will cause them to look at you funny), but Crane is very aware of how implausible his claims are. The fact that Mison -- and the show -- give the character a measure of dignity goes a long way toward making the whole enterprise work.
If Crane didn't come off as a real human being, it'd be very hard to care at all about his quest to stop the Horseman. As a side benefit, the way Mison bites off his dryest lines ("This day continues to bear gifts!") is, simply put, fun.
The weakest part of "Sleepy Hollow" involves some mystical hoo-hah about Crane's wife and a battle between good and evil that is hundreds of years old, yada yada. It's very hard to do that kind of thing well without coming off as a third-rate "Buffy" knockoff, and it remains to be seen if "Sleepy Hollow" will avoid those genre traps or stride right into them in its fancy Revolutionary War-era boots. But all in all, I was reasonably impressed with what Mison, Nicole Beharie (who plays a local cop) and Orlando Jones (the, er, head cop) were able to do in the pilot. It may be nutty, but "Sleepy Hollow" is able to create genuinely atmospheric moments and a few jolting scares in its pilot, which is more than I can say for most other new dramas.
I will continue watching "Sleepy Hollow" because, in its pilot, it achieved its modest goals without leaning too far into pompousness (as is the case with "Almost Human") or slicing off too much ham (hello "The Blacklist"). Three weeks from now, I may be sheepishly washing my hands of Ichabod Crane, or I might be watching this slight premise evolve into the next "Supernatural."
If the latter occurs, we'll all have come out ahead of the game.
A head, get it?