Conjuring Up A Great Pilot

I have always been fascinated by the first episode of a television series, known as the pilot episode, because there is something unique to the art of creating great pilots. They have the incredibly difficult task of introducing several new characters simultaneously, establishing the relationships and dynamics between them, outlining the premise of the show, and doling out a lot of exposition in a short period of time without sounding too clunky, all while engaging and then maintaining the audience’s interest, and at the end of all this, crafting an ending that will ensure the audience returns the following week. It’s an arduous task, and not surprisingly, many pilots fall short in this tall order. However, there are those elusive shows that somehow manage to get everything right in their first outing, and that is why I spend an inordinate amount of time at the beginning of each television season watching the new crop of pilots, hoping that I’ll find at least one gem. This year this tradition was rewarded when I happened upon one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen: the stellar debut of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow.

An adaptation of Washington Irving’s famous short story, Sleepy Hollow tells the story of Ichabod Crane, a British agent for the American forces during the Revolutionary War, who is killed on the battlefield in 1781 while working on assignment to George Washington, only to awaken in 2013 along with the Headless Horseman. Now an outsider in a strange land and time, Crane teams up with the skeptical Lt. Abbie Mills to try and solve the mysteries of the Headless Horseman and the bodies left in its wake, with an impending apocalypse to avert thrown in for good measure. This premise may sound ludicrous, but it is done impossibly well, and more importantly, the show is aware of its absurdity and just has fun with it. Amongst the looming specter of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the pilot still finds time for small delights, including a wonderful moment where Crane takes the time to marvel at the technology of a car’s power windows. Lead actors Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie, as Crane and Mills respectively, have a crackling chemistry and impeccable comic timing, lending Sleepy Hollow a comic sensibility that reveals the fun the writers are having with their outlandish premise. At one point during the pilot I wondered how this premise could possibly support a weekly series, but even then Sleepy Hollow managed to surprise, as by the end of the episode, a compelling seven year vision had been laid out, hinting at a treasure trove of stories yet to be told.

Unfortunately, many shows that begin with solid pilots are often unable to maintain that momentum, and I can’t say I wasn’t worried that the same fate would befall Sleepy Hollow. However, subsequent episodes that have aired over the past month have thankfully proven my worries to be unfounded, as the show has maintained its particular brand of crazy weirdness, supernatural mysteries, and quippy banter, while keeping the humour, characterizations, and overall story arcs that made Sleepy Hollow a hit. Already renewed for a second season, I’m happy to say that my Monday nights are booked for the foreseeable future.

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