Years ago, I taught a class in television writing, and as part of that class, we watched every new fall show on the major networks. From time to time, just for fun, I do it again, and this fall was no exception. And we learned, unsurprisingly, that most of the new offerings were terrible. Many have, in fact, already been canceled. But there are often standouts, and for my wife and I, one such standout is Fox’s show Sleepy Hollow. It supposed to be an expansion of the Washington Irving short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” It is that, with maybe some overtones of Rip Van Winkle; it also owes massive amounts to the Bible, specifically John’s Revelation.
The premise of the show is that Ichabod Crane, a former member of George Washington’s staff, fell in battle during the Revolutionary War, but was wakened now, today, 2013. One of his last memories before his ‘death’ was beheading a Hessian soldier, then seeing the headless horseman rise and continue fighting.
Ichabod Crane, in the Irving short story, is a schoolteacher. Irving describes him very specifically:
He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.
That hardly describes Tom Mison, who plays Ichabod Crane on the TV series. You may remember the actor as Emily Blunt’s lost-and-returned soldier husband in Salmon Fishing on the Yemen, an unusually good rom-com I’m pretty fond of. Mison is, I am reliably told by the womenfolk in my life, a hottie. He’s good looking, charming, long-haired and athletic, and on the TV series, he plays, not Crane the oddball schoolteacher, but Crane the military officer, with an officer’s command and presence. The show is about the return of the Headless Horseman, and Ichabod’s partnership with a modern cop, Abbie Mills, played by Nicole Beharie, as they fight not just the Horseman of Irving’s story, but the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and other forces of Biblical evil, gathering for the End of Days.
Obviously, one issue in a show like this is the deliberate anachronism of an 18th century American in 21st century New England. How would a Revolutionary soldier deal with a world of automobiles, cell phones, television–heck, even radio? How would he deal with highways and traffic lights, fast food and billboards and all of it? Zippers. Chewing gum. ATMs. Velcro. Everything.
What makes it work for me, though, is something that’s basically a throw-away line in the exposition–the idea that he was on ‘General Washington’s staff.’ Because that’s a tremendously suggestive notion.
Because George Washington’s staff, man, there’s a group with some serious talent. That was one extraordinary bunch of young men. One of the less celebrated aspects of Washington’s leadership was his ability to identify, assemble and inspire young talent. If we can place young Ichabod in that group, that tells us a lot about him. And that group included people like Edmund Randolph, the first US Attorney-General, John Trumbull, one of the first great US painters, plus any number of future Senators, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, Mayors.
Two men from Washington’s staff every knows about. One was Alexander Hamilton. He was twenty in 1776 (or nineteen, or twenty-one–he was never sure), a poor kid from the West Indies, son of unmarried parents, orphaned at the age of ten (or so), self-educated. But he was apprenticed to a merchant, made his way to New York, got a better education at Columbia, made himself known with his pen. Washington tried him as captain of an artillery regiment, at which he excelled. We know Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury, as the one real economist among the Founders. But as a young man, he showed signs of military genius–Washington made him chief-of-staff.
The other guy we’ve heard of is Lafayette. Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette–another teenager, who had every early advantage Hamilton lacked, but who shared Hamilton’s precocious military genius, and the man the childless Washington regarded as a son. Lafayette was Washington’s conscience, even purchasing a West Indian plantation and freeing his slaves, to prove to his mentor that it was possible to run a for-profit plantation while paying your workers a living wage. He wanted Cayenne to become as famous as Mount Vernon or Monticello; sadly, he lost it in the Terror, and his freed slaves were murdered in a civil war.
But most relevant to Sleepy Hollow may be John Laurens. Laurens was twenty two when the Revolution began, son of a wealthy South Carolina planter, exiled to London to finish his education when the war began. On the TV series, Ichabod Crane says he was educated in London–as was Laurens. Crane says he studied law, philosophy and science, and read very widely–that was also Laurens’ curriculum. But Laurens, despite his upbringing as a slave-owners son, was passionately opposed to the institution of chattel slavery. He tried to free South Carolina’s slaves, and form an army of freed slaves, and lead it to battle against the British. Had he succeeded, he may well have stopped the British from taking the South. But Laurens was opposed by the Southern aristocracy, and was eventually killed, in 1782, in a small battle of little importance. He was an astonishingly brave, idealistic and brilliant young man; sadly, men like him are often the first casualties of any war.
In the TV series, Ichabod Crane almost immediately accepts the brave new world in which he finds himself, and adjusts almost immediately to, for example, cars. For most men of the late 18th century, this would not be dramatically plausible. But Laurens, say, or Hamilton, or Lafayette were men of the enlightenment. They expected scientific progress. A young gentleman of their class and period would be expected to read broadly in science and engineering, in addition to law or political philosophy. Once they got over the immediate shock of discovering themselves in 2013, they could quite likely take new technology in stride.
Crane also partners up with a 2013 police officer, an African-American woman. And yes, for an 18th century man, this would require considerable mental adjustment. But less than you’d think. Remember that Lafayette and Laurens were passionately opposed to slavery, and passionately committed to the notion that blacks were equal to whites in every sense except opportunity–that, given education and the chance to advance themselves, former slaves could do anything they wanted with their lives. Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, suggested that slavery was congenial to blacks, because they lacked the capacity for education and reason. Laurens was from Jefferson’s culture and class, but could not have disagreed more vehemently. Again, for almost any other 18th century young man, a police lieutenant of African descent would be unthinkable. For a ‘member of Washington’s staff,’ it would be, more or less, what they would expect of the future. The bigger shock, in fact, may well be that a woman could be a cop. But then, their culture didn’t have cops either, and in the Revolution they may have seen women in combat. Molly Pitcher, anyone?
In fact, the one adjustment to modern life that Ichabod makes most easily is his ready acceptance of magic and miracles–the Four Horsemen, the witches and ghouls and other Biblical manifestations. Washington’s staffers, like the General himself, were thorough-going Deists every last man-jack of them; hard-headed rationalists who understood the universe through the metaphor of a timepiece–once wound by God, it’s meant to just keep ticking. The supernatural bits in Sleepy Hollow are what should throw Ichabod for a loop. But this particular enlightenment man was, in his previous life, supposedly married to a witch (a good witch, we’re hastily assured), so he’s pretty used to odd stuff going on.
So that part’s pretty silly. But it allows the show’s producers to wave their magic CGI wands, plus, you know, it’s a show about a 250 year old man, so it can’t be entirely realism. Thanks to young Tom Mison’s charisma and skill, Ichabod’s a most compelling character, and Beharie’s great too–they have great chemistry in what’s basically a buddy-cop movie, with witches and Headless Horsemen. Anyway, we’re big fans, and have fewer problems suspending disbelief than you might expect. Catch it if you can; Fox, Monday nights.