Sleepy Hollow: Fringe for people who didn’t Like Fringe

I admit that it took me a while to see this, but Sleepy Hollow, this season’s most entertaining new series, is Fringe for people who didn’t like Fringe. That’s neither a criticism of people who didn’t watch Fringe or of Sleepy Hollow’s producers – Fringe’s Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci – for swapping out their previous show’s scientific basis and replacing it with supernatural goings-on as a means of chasing the dark-magic/fantasy demographic (understandable given how often Fringe came close to cancellation and how big the supernatural is right now). No, I’m just happy to see an echo of a show I loved so much (Fringe is my favorite series of the post-Lost/BSG era) resurrected with such gusto (and appropriately too, given how Sleepy Hollow toys so often with the notion of resurrection, from the level of its characters – Ichabod Crane returned to life after 250 years – to its playful attitude to its source material – Washington Irving’s 1820 story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ – as well as TV progenitors ranging from Fringe itself to Supernatural, The X-Files, and the knowing, heroes-versus-demons drama of Joss Whedon’s work in the late 1990s).

Like Fringe it is a kind of procedural about secret histories which are directly connected to the characters’ pasts as well as their roles in the (possible) end of the world… And do you know what? If someone had described it to me like that I might have caught it from the outset rather than binging on the first five episodes over the last week and a half (nothing wrong with that!). To be fair, I’m a little ashamed that I didn’t see Sleepy Hollow coming myself (a terrible omission considering I’m supposed to be all about the Next Big Show) and yet here it is, the hit of the new slate, already renewed for a second season, vastly more enjoyable and polished (thus far) than the much-anticipated Agents of SHIELD (which, to be fair, is finding its feet more and more each week though it still suffers from a curious blandness; who knows, maybe someday I’ll even stop calling it Agents of White People).

But, hang on, how exactly is Sleepy Hollow essentially Fringe reborn? (Note: Minor Spoilers from here on…)

Well for one thing, Kurtzman and Orci have given us another strong female law enforcement professional as one of Sleepy Hollow’s central characters, here Abbie Mills of the local Sherrif’s Department to Fringe’s FBI agent Olivia Dunham. Mind you, where Dunham’s character was initially quite cold and closed off, Mills is more immediately, how do they say…  fun! Sure there’s a touch of Dunham’s (and, for that matter, Dana Scully’s) early incredulity to her, but she has a warmth and a sense of humour to match the competency we expect from our procedural heroes. She’s smart, capable, and hugely engaging from the get-go, with Nicole Beharie already bringing great things to the role; kind of like a version of Anna Torv’s Dunham if she had never been damaged by lies and abuse and betrayals (actually, come to think of it, that’s basically the Olivia Dunham of Fringe‘s alternate universe, a figure to whom the Mills character – having processed her childhood trauma in a reasonably positive fashion – has a more natural affinity).

Meanwhile, for the show’s other lead, Kurtzman and Orci have retained and retooled Fringe’s notion of the amusing genius disconnected from the modern world, a fish-out-of-water whose “own circumstance” make him open to the prospect that “anything is possible”. In Sleepy Hollow’s case, Ichabod Crane is literally a man out of time, resurrected via magic in the present after his “death” in the American Revolutionary War. He is, like Fringe’s institutionalised-for-decades Walter Bishop, a college professor with a vast wealth of specialised knowledge which makes him valuable to contemporary law enforcement (each, I note as of Sleepy Hollow 01×05, is referred to as a “consultant”). That said, Tom Mison’s Crane has a lot to live up to considering that Walter Bishop is one of contemporary television’s greatest characters (yes, yes, Breaking Bad; I know, I know…). Speaking of, it seems that Bishop actor John Noble – criminally overlooked by the Emmy Awards for years – is due in the Hollow next month. That’ll be fun.

A third strand of Fringe’s legacy can be discerned in Orlando Jones’s Police Captain Frank Irving (whose name alone is enough to clue us into his importance to the show). Irving resembles Fringe’s Phillip Broyles (played by Lance Reddick) in that he’s a gruff boss who cuts his unconventional investigators slack because they’re good at what they do. We don’t yet know a lot about him but the character seems to have secrets; he appears to be part of something bigger, a “pattern,” perhaps (and yes, Casual Fringe Watchers, they did explain what The Pattern was).

Beyond characters, Sleepy Hollow has even preserved Fringe’s concept of the ‘lab’, the site of both Walter Bishop’s past scientific transgressions and present scientific heroism (“So much happened here… and so much is about to”). In episode two, the show presents us with a similar space of preserved knowledge explicitly connected to the past life of one of its protagonists, in this case the archive room of the police station, a structure with which Crane is familiar from his days in the Revolutionary Army (“The Battle of Lexington was plotted in this chamber”) and in which is contained the history of Sleepy Hollow the town as well as, it seems, the future of Sleepy Hollow the show (just like Fringe’s lab, this looks like it’s going to be a key location and resource as the series moves forward). Moreover, the introduction of the cabin as Crane’s new abode – “certainly preferable to that motel” – in episode five also echoes Walter Bishop’s move from a hotel to a house on campus early in Fringe’s first season.

I should add, of course, that none of this is intended to detract from Sleepy Hollow’s own sense of identity. It certainly has one and is developing it a little more with every episode. For all its silliness (indeed, often because of its silliness) I’m thoroughly enjoying Kurtzman and Orci’s “retelling” of Irving’s story beyond simple comparisons to other shows (or, if you prefer, beyond my appreciation of Kurtzman and Orci’s clever repackaging of what they were already working on). Sleepy Hollow is fun, well-written, wonderfully acted, and, occasionally, quite beautifully directed (Len Wiseman’s work on the pilot was very striking). In fact, thinking about it again, perhaps it’s less Fringe for people who didn’t like Fringe and more supernatural-fantasy for people who were fans of the previous show. As Ichabod Crane might say, “I can name a few stranger turns of events…”

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