Aug 29, 2016

How To Lose Sight Of Storytelling & Alienate Fans: The 'Sleepy Hollow' Edition

Let's say you have a show.

Your show turns a familiar tale on its head and rewrites American history in a fun and fantastical fashion. For added measure, your show compiles together a strong and diverse cast whose two leads have an undeniable chemistry that causes fandemonium in the social media streets. Your show also becomes a darling with critics and even has the pleasure to be renewed in a time when TV shows often meet cancellation fate before the first season even takes flight.

So what do you do with your show?

Option #1: Do you keep up the good work and build upon its success, creating new ways to scare and suspend disbelief?


Option #2: Do you sit there twiddling your thumbs, shrug your shoulders, and go: "Meh, let's trash it all." ?

If your show is named Sleepy Hollow, you chose the last option, and congratulations, you've pretty much fucked up your show!

FOX's Sleepy Hollow had a great thing going for it. It was charming, entertaining, and it gave the horror genre a bit of a ghoul-lift. It took Washington Irving's classic speculative fiction tale and remodeled it for a new generation. Instead of setting it in its early 1800s timeframe, Icabod Crane (played by Tom Mison), due to the 'mystic powers that be', was brought back from the dead to fight supernatural beings in the present, this done alongside the whip smart police detective, Abbie Mills (played by Nicole Beharie), who also herself possessed an inky past that was later revealed to be intertwined with Crane's. This premise of mixing the supernatural macabre with buddy cop procedural serenaded me, and hooked on the Hollow I became. 

It's why not enough expletives can be strung together to describe the frustrating situation going on with Sleepy Hollow at current. Though I'm prone to abandon a show once it becomes too incredulous to comprehend (looking at you Empire and How To Get Away With Murder), Sleepy Hollow was of a different breed. Even when it was horrible, no good, and very bad, I stayed loyal, and excused every form of fuckery the show launched my way, but this latest creative decision done during the show's third season finale has sent me into rage spells. 

If you've never seen Sleepy Hollow, or haven't been aware of the show's consistent self-sabotaging, then Vulture has the detailed play-by-play for you, but the tl;dr version is after its lauded first season, Sleepy Hollow became an unwatchable enchilada casserole of fail. Just a compact, gooey mess of layered missteps and infractions that dampened the shows spirit and storytelling turning it into a show that became the ultimate hate-watch. Going through the gory details, just amplifies the disappointment of what this show turned into, as much as it raises baffling questions as to how a show managed to mutilate itself the way that it did when it didn't necessarily have to. 

I have watched Sleepy Hollow since its premiere back in 2014, and it pained me to see the show slip and slide and go from one asinine plotline to another, getting progressively worse as it rolled on and the characters began exhibiting off-base behavior or simply were dropped like flies due to hidden agendas from the higher executive powers that be. Most fans peg the horrible second season as when Sleepy Hollow began to lose sight of its storytelling and character prowess. Sour relations behind the scenes, firings of lead writers, and a reshuffling of the cast lent to some of its major problems. For me, the problems began when the once diverse cast went through an ethnic cleanse as supporting actors like John Cho and Orlando Jones found themselves booted off the show for reasons that weren't exactly plot savvy and characters like Lyndie Greenwood's Jennie Mills saw their screen-time lessened for reasons unknown. 

The racist undertones to the mutation of Beharie's Abbie Mills character in favor of promoting the lackluster role of Katia Winter's Katrina Crane also were too glaring to ignore. Monique Jones' run-down on Black Girl Nerds skewers with accuracy how the writers took strenuous steps to ensure that Abbie Mills went from being the focal female, to being whittled down to a "mule of the world" while Katrina's witchy Damsel In Distress act took over, and drowned us all in (white) tears.

Some don't find the racism argument palpable in this discussion, but as a Black girl who grew up shuffling Fear Street and Stephen King books in with my school books and who still watches Twilight Zone, Tales Of The Darkside, and Friday The 13th: The Series like religion, the mangling of Beharie's Abbie Mills was something that meant more to a certain sector of Sleepy Hollow fans than others. "Horror films are made for White people" was a line a friend told me once, and for a time, it held some weight as a majority of horror stories either omitted persons of color or made them expendable for the sake of  'stronger' White characters to prevail. 

The running joke is that when you sit down to watch a horror film and see a person of color, an invisible timer appears over their head, and you're clocking down the minutes till their death kneel, knowing that they won't live when the credits roll. When Sleepy Hollow arrived, I almost had the notion to find that old 'friend' on Facebook and gloat. Now here was a show that proved her opinion null. Here was a show where the minority characters were fighting demons and bad forces but didn't end up dying within the first five minutes! Joy! Rapture!

Even better, and contrary to eye-rolling misconceptions, Abbie Mills was never written as a sidekick. She was a leather jacket-clad ball of fiery wit, intelligence, and bravery who was running thangs. Beharie's portrayal of such a character overrode the stereotype that Black women as fictional characters weren't just on screen to titillate and support their White co-stars. Abbie Mills was the type of heroine Black women dreamed of seeing within book pages, on screen, and spoken about in conversation. Sure the adorable aloofness and accent of Mison's Icabod Crane made the panties drop, but Beharie drew me further in the show with her presence alone and she played Abbie Mills to perfection. With Greenwood's Jennie Mills to top off the #BlackGirlMagic brew, it felt like finally primetime television was getting somewhere, that we were ready to have minority characters be developed and purposeful and in a genre that we're often not even allowed to be seen in. Sleepy Hollow gives another option outside of seeing the hamster wheel churn of "IMPORTANT BLACK FILMS" where Black people are oppressed on a plantation, dodging bullets and police brutality in the street, or doing some form of cringe-worthy comical slapstick.

So yes, I let my guard slip for just a moment. I dreamed a little post-racial dream. I cuddled this show too close to where I got hurt. Fool me once, twice, three times, shame on me. In some small way I was waiting for the show to recapture the magic of its much-lauded first season, but with the show's latest grotesque mutation, the first season was a delicious fever dream.

It was known that Nicole Beharie wanted out of the show, but to (spoiler) kill off Abbie in the manner that was done didn't service the plot and killed the central essence of the show: the comradeship of Icabod and Abbie. Once focus went off of the pairing between Crane and Abbie, the show was in shambles, lacking sense and sincerity.

Sleepy Hollow worked best when it focused on the family dynamics of Abbie and Jennie interspersed with their association with Sheriff August Corbin (a quite underused Clancy Brown), when Crane was a "man out of time", when they poked at historical accuracy, when the Headless Horseman was galloping around (instead of the weeping sad pot they turned him into). But when you don't allow your leading lady to LEAD because you're scared that a Black woman cannot do the job, the faith lost is faith lost for the viewer. Even with inane plot-lines and underwhelming monsters that could make Van Helsing yawn, the show doesn't work unless you allow the leading attraction, the duo that everyone's gushing about in recaps and on social media, to both LEAD on equally footing.

Sleepy Hollow, Season 3 Cast --- this is only half of the overstuffed cast
I can't even tell you what the third season was going for. It was as if there were fifteen different plots going on with the Witness plot getting thornier and thornier in its theology. The character became overcrowded with thugs, monsters, and the new baddie, the droning Pandora (Shannyn Sossamon) and her abusive demon beau who just stood there and snarled the whole time. It seemed that the writers were making things up as they went along, throwing everything in the pot the plotlines were loose with little to no focus, characters were developed poorly or not at all, the romance between characters was hinted but never evolved. Episodes were so poorly written that it amazes me how recaps came out coherent and fandom discussions were exchanged in detail. Maybe it was just my slow brain or that I need to brush up on my Christian/Apocalyptic narratives, but every time I would watch an episode, I would feel as if I missed something and I'd feel...stupid. Like I didn't get it even when my mind was w-i-d-e open. Horror/Sci-Fi are genres that don't require concrete sense, but there still needs to be reasons to push the story forward, there still has to be an idea that can tie into the universal ideas that drive fiction. Sleepy Hollow just wasn't convincing from that end.

I also noticed from combing through fan discussions the frustration some had over the developing nature of Abbie and Crane's relationship. Some fans were salivating over the fact that Abbie and Crane could be more than just historical monster hunters.

Personally, I was never really into Abbie and Crane pressing flesh. Not because I'm against a Black woman and a White man having interrelations, no, Mison and Beharie's chemistry went beyond the sexual for me. I truly only saw them more as friends, (very) distant relations, as a dynamic duo of bad assery that had been fated by the stars and stripes of American history to be the protectors of the real world against the alter. As much as Abbie was often slighted in the romance department to much warranted grumbling, Abbie and Crane being lovers wouldn't have pushed the story into a better direction and would've killed the anomaly of a man and woman (and a White man and Black woman at that) being trusted adversaries in TV land.

We have enough shows where men and women ring around the rose bush before they hit the sheets, Sleepy Hollow was refreshing in that it actually strayed from such a trope, such an cliched expectation. The balancing act of Abbie and Crane was done so well in the first season, and Crane becoming the sidekick to Abbie's leader role was unprecedented. When they added in Jennie and Irving, they had a team that couldn't be beat and was a grouping unlike what I've ever seen on TV.

Coming to close out this rant, my head still is rolling in confusion, and maybe it's best to walk away just like I did those final four episodes of season 3 which were collecting dust on my Hulu queue (and have at post time been deleted). Still, it baffles as to how so much talent was wasted on such mediocre content. How a creative team just ignored all the praise and support the show received across gender and ethnic lines, but decided to ignore it in favor of making the show an unwatchable mess. Why the self-sabotage? Why go to such great lengths to squash a ratings winner? The mind boggles at how one show could end up in its own realm of purgatory, but here we are.

It'd be wonderful if the frustrating situation going on with Sleepy Hollow could be reversed, as if we were thumbing through a Choose Your Adventure tale, where you could restart from the beginning and not visit the number pages than landed you into the depths of purgatory, but then again, as in life you never get do-overs. Though Sleepy Hollow is currently trying to persuade viewers that the show can still hold candlestick relevance with one of its lead characters gone for its fourth season (premiering in 2017), consider me vexed and non-invested.

Parting is such bitter and ghoulish sorrow.

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