The closest Fox’s campy genre drama “Sleepy Hollow” got to the Emmys in 2015 was when Emmy winner Viola Davis mentioned its lead actress during her acceptance speech. Davis became the first African-American woman to win the dramatic lead actress Emmy, in a field that was stacked with incredible talent. And as she noted in her speech, her success was not just about her performance but also about a moment in history, where diversity in casting has become both an ideological and business imperative for studios and network execs. The Emmys exist to reward good shows, and “Sleepy Hollow,” especially in its second season, was not a good show. But Davis called out what is the best thing about it—what has been the best thing about it, from the very beginning—the casting of Nicole Beharie as Abbie Mills, a cop who finds a very tall time-traveler and decides to believe him.
Beharie came to “Sleepy Hollow” by way of Juilliard and a role opposite Michael Fassbender in 2011’s “Shame”; she both has dramatic chops and a demonstrable interest in using them. “Sleepy Hollow” is not quite an art film, but it’s ambitious in its own way—specifically because it debuted on Fox, which in 2013 made diversity casting part of its profit strategy. Beharie’s casting fed directly into the show casting her sister, Jenny, with another black actress (Lyndie Greenwood); and because her time-traveler from the colonial era, Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), was until recently used to black people being slaves, the show introduced an engagement and a tension with historical narrative that both commented on and played with the differences between 1781 and 2013.
But casting for diversity does not always mean being ready to write stories for diverse casts. Season one of “Sleepy Hollow” was a supernatural romp through history, treating the Founding Fathers and Biblical lore with about as much respect as a kid in a candy shop (appreciative, but run amok). Season two got very lost in the weeds, and ended up sidelining the elements that made the show so fun to begin with. And that is the relationship between Ichabod and Abbie, one that both Mison and Beharie show up to with warmth and humor. “Sleepy Hollow” is not-so-subtly built on “The X-Files” template, meaning a tall odd man and a petite no-nonsense woman run around investigating the supernatural while staving off the real mystery…. their relationship. Depending on who you ask, both in the show and outside of it, Ichabod and Abbie are either totally in love with each other, totally platonic, or totally somewhere in the middle and figuring it out. Their chemistry adds another dimension to the interplay between race and history in the show; again, in a kind of silly and fun way, but in a way that feels new and interesting, too.
So naturally, things got a little frustrating when season two of “Sleepy Hollow” sidelined Abbie in order to engage in an 18-episode long plot with Ichabod’s past-and-then-purgatoried witch wife, Katrina (Katia Winter) and his now-evil long-lost son (John Noble). It also sidelined or wrote out every other character of color: Orlando Jones’ magnificent Irving, who played the role of audience surrogate in the first season, ended up lost in a dead-end asylum plot; John Cho was fridged; Jenny ended up having to play second fiddle to a newcomer who happened to be a white guy; Sakina Jaffrey almost never moved past hatchet-faced disapproval. In a sense it was the oldest second-season story in the TV book; an overambitious first season leading to a messy and confused second season. (See also: “Empire.”) In “Sleepy Hollow”’s case, what literally had made the show so good—its diverse cast and the foundational relationship between Ichabod and Abbie—were backgrounded for plot machinations that were never the reason anyone was watching the show.
It lost a lot of viewers, including myself, and actually, I would have bet money on “Sleepy Hollow” being canceled after its second season; the show just seemed to have lost steam and vibrancy. Except for one little thing: Ichabod does kill his entire family in order to save Abbie’s life. Like, there are other things he’s saving, such as the world, but Katrina walks into Ichabod’s knife because she is magic-strangling Abbie to death, and Abbie only points a gun at Ichabod’s son because Ichabod’s already given up on saving him. It was not just a narrative mic-drop; “Sleepy Hollow” knows it made mistakes, and wants to atone for them by killing everyone else Ichabod has ever been close to, so then he’ll have to be with Abbie. The third season, which debuted early this month, has significantly spotlighted the emotional relationship between Ichabod and Abbie. It’s also introduced new romantic interests for both.
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As someone who was very invested in the evolution of Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson)’s relationship in what I named above as “Sleepy Hollow”’s major influence, I read with interest Megan Garber’s piece from earlier this week, “‘Steve Jobs’ and the triumph of the work wife.” She writes:
A healthy portion of the sitcoms and series that have been on TV in the last decades have indulged in office-set sexual tension, and indeed treated that tension as a premise of many of their melodramas. Moonlighting. Cheers. Grey’s Anatomy. And on and on. Will they or won’t they? we asked, breathlessly. That the “they” in question were co-workers was not, at the time, considered problematic.
The current crop of shows and movies—not exclusively, certainly, but noticeably—are rejecting that premise. They’re treating work, and the office it’s conducted in, instead as a kind of sacred space that offers refuge from the assorted dramas of family life.
Abbie and Ichabod are only coworkers insofar as they both work for the Anti-Apocalypse Shadowy Good Guys, or something, but Garber’s observations made me wonder if that’s the reason “Sleepy Hollow” had trouble in its second season, as Ichabod’s family life got in the way of the important work that the team needed to accomplish.
But I think there might be a slightly more emotional element at play outside of the sanitized world of “Steve Jobs,” and I think that hearkens back to the reason why Viola Davis name-dropped Beharie at the Emmys. When Mulder and Scully spent years on end smoldering towards each other but not doing anything about it, it was both because “The X-Files” wanted to hook interested viewers with that dangling thread, and also because a romantic relationship engages with faith, trust, and intimacy. Scully and Mulder spent the entire show reckoning with their individual faith and their trust in each other, as well as larger questions about the corruption of government and the security of their world. A relationship was impossible, no matter how many long silences stretched between them, because that complex reckoning between the desire for faith and the fear of it were embedded in the show’s foundation.
“Sleepy Hollow” is not as sophisticated, but it might be scratching at something similar. It’s visible in the final scene of last week’s episode, “Blood And Fear,” where Ichabod, hopped up on pain medication, is surprisingly expressive of his affection for Abbie, and her response is a complex emotion that seems to verge on fear. I don’t think it’s that Abbie isn’t interested in Ichabod; I think it’s that perhaps much more than he, she gleans that it would be pretty damn complicated. An interracial work relationship is fun and games; an interracial work/sex relationship is Olivia and Fitz on “Scandal.”
In season two, “Sleepy Hollow” had a lot of trouble writing its characters of color. Maybe the show realizes, along with Abbie, that launching into this romance would require more narrative heavy lifting for the black experience than they’ve been able to express. Maybe the writers don’t feel fully capable of handling this quite revolutionary relationship at a different level.
And maybe they’re preparing to do it twice over. Because along with Ichabod’s family now being totally dead, so that he lives with Abbie (platonically, even if he folds her underwear) (this show), her sister Jenny has started working closely with a childhood friend who seems to have no plot purpose aside from looking at her with undisguised longing. Jenny is black; Joe Corbin (Zach Appelman) is white. I’m more intrigued than ever to see what this show is going to do with its completely ridiculous story, because all of the smoke and mirrors of Thomas Jefferson and Betsy Ross (Nikki Reed) is a cover for the oddest set of interracial work marriages in history.
And who knows, maybe they’re all just friends. (This show.)