TV review: Unsolved murder cases, horned demons and missed tricks in Sleepy Hollow

Universal Channel

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The Independent Culture

Welcome to the little town of Sleepy Hollow, population: 440,000. Forecast: raining anachronisms. This new US-made fantasy series stars Nicole Beharie as Detective Abbie Mills.

Mills is about to leave town for an FBI training course at Quantico when the supposedly sleepy Sleepy Hollow starts waking up. Her partner, Sheriff Corbin, is murdered by a headless horseman in an 18th-century Redcoat uniform, and a man claiming to be a soldier from the same time period, recently risen from the grave, is arrested walking the streets. He calls himself Ichabod Crane.

That name and the figure of the headless horseman are just about all that survives from Washington Irving's 1820 short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow". Plot-wise, Universal Channel's Sleepy Hollow is closer to Tim Burton's 1999 feature film, only minus the Burtonesque feel for gothic gloom that was that film's main selling point.

The title is really only an excuse for an overcooked occult plot that somehow encompasses unsolved murder cases, competing covens of good and evil witches, a horned demon and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – and that's just in episode one. Some sample fantasy TV series mumbo-jumbo: "When you wounded the horseman your bloodlines merged, you became linked, bounded together by blood." Well that explains everything, then.

Co-opting folklore themes into a modern setting has worked well in the past, but Sleepy Hollow lacks Buffy the Vampire Slayer's way with a pop culture reference, or a heroine as spunky as Sarah Michelle Gellar. Beharie is pretty unremarkable and she heads up an unremarkable cast, whose high-point is a role for John Cho (better known as Harold from the Harold & Kumar films).

If the writers were bolder there could have been some interesting conflict between Mills, an African-American female in a position of power, and the stranger from a time when such a thing would be unthinkable. Instead, it was made clear early on that Crane (Tom Mison) holds some pretty progressive views for an 18th-century Englishman.

This minimised the potential for fish-out-of-water humour, and if you hoped that decapitation puns would make up the gag shortfall, you'd have been disappointed. Here's one on me: Sleepy Hollow is mildly diverting television, but it's nothing worth losing your head over.