I was watching Sleepy Hollow this past Monday and at the end of a scene was struck by something. There were five characters in this scene, and only one of them was white. (He’s also British and a man out of time, but I don’t think that quite qualifies him as a minority.) This is a pretty remarkable occurrence on primetime network TV.
It was a brief flash of thought that led me to be pretty mystified why I haven’t heard much discussion about how remarkable this show really is. What better day to bring it up than Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which also happens to be their season finale? Does it take people who can suspend their disbelief enough to accept a Revolutionary era soldier (who works for the Masons) was resurrected in modern day by witchcraft so he could fight the Apocalypse to be okay with a black female co-lead? Okay, maybe not; Kerry Washington has been winning awards for Scandal. But there’s no denying that most TV is still staggeringly lacking in diversity of all types.
TV in the sci-fi and fantasy genre, which in the past had been MORE diverse than “mainstream” TV, used to be a template of diversity. This was in part because of show runners who actively pushed boundaries, and in part since it was much harder to write an explanation for why your characters were far in the future and deep in space but it was cast like a period piece.
In regards to genre shows currently on the air though, the picture isn’t quite so equal-opportunity as we might expect. Without naming names, run through all the sci-fi, horror, and fantasy shows running now. How many of them have non-white actors in their main cast (think who would appear on a poster)? What fraction of that main cast do they really represent? How many are female? And this isn’t talking about any other possible definition of diversity, much of which is entirely unrepresented.
So I have to give a lot of credit to Sleepy Hollow, which seems to have just written and cast people instead of “playing it safe”; or for that matter, trying to take some politically-correct tack that feels forced. In the midst of all hell breaking loose (literally), it’s been quietly breaking stereotypes.
Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) is a pretty unique leading lady. It would’ve been easy to cast a man as the default choice for a cop, or to cast a blonde model type to be “different”. Maybe either of those choices would have been fine, but they wouldn’t have been very interesting. She’s also one of the more dynamic female characters on shows I’ve been watching lately. Her dry, deadpan humor is the sort of thing usually assigned to a male character, but makes her an oddly powerful figure in the face of decidedly non-hilarious circumstances. It also pairs her well against Ichabod Crane. She has justified shock and uncertainty in the face of frankly terrifying situations, but is admirably proactive and confident at the same time. (She took severed heads hollowed out and made into lanterns quite well.) She gets scared, but doesn’t need to be rescued. Abbie’s also demonstrated that while shaped by her experiences in the foster system, she’s not scarred by it. Both she and her sister have issues, and a problematic history both individually and together, but they’re not “damaged goods”. It’s much more realistic and compelling, generally, to see characters who are not broken but rather chipped at the edges. “Scratch-and dent” describes the majority of humanity. That’s what gives people character, and makes characters people.
The relationship between Ichabod and Abbie isn’t driven by a “will they-won’t they” forced pairing for the sake of tension. (Not to mention that Ichabod is still kinda-sorta-technically married. Let’s just say filing divorce papers would be very complicated.) Their dynamic works on the basis of a mutual respect and affection. Even when they’re frustrated with each other, it’s clear it’s a partnership; they’re in this together. It’s incredibly refreshing to see that kind of relationship, with both parties on equal footing, but without stolen glances shoehorned into it. It hasn’t happened much since the early seasons of The X-Files (ignoring where that series eventually headed with their leads).
With Ichabod Crane, it would’ve been easy to keep playing the “hilarious fish out of water” angle. They wisely haven’t abandoned that aspect prematurely, and instead use it to great comedic effect (Tom Mison deftly keeps it from skewing too far into camp). However, they haven’t made it his only aspect, or assumed that because of his origins he would hold invariably old-fashioned views. We actually get to see via flashback how he came to side with the Americans, and to believe strongly in the injustices of slavery. Yes, there’s commentary on slavery and racism in this show about a headless axe-murdering demon. There should be some kind of special prize for that.
In this same episode I was referring to, we also see Captain Irving (Orlando Jones) interacting with his daughter, who is wheelchair-bound due to an accident (and excels in science and math). How does he wind up admitting to her that he was wrong to not accept her for who she is, by trying to fix her because he’s obsessed with not protecting who she was? Well, there’s this demon… see, there we are again with “special prize”. (Incidentally, if you’ve ever seen this show but you’re not following @TheOrlandoJones on Twitter, you’re missing out.) Again, this isn’t about hammering home a “very important message”. It’s character development for Irving that makes him a more rounded and interesting character, instead of just leaving him as an aloof figure in an office who metes out what Mills does or doesn’t do. We get an understanding of why he makes those choices.
I have to admit that I was ready to dislike this series. I wasn’t sold on the first episode. There was some uneven tone, some retreading of too-familiar territory; it was largely the special effects and production design that kept me around to see where they were headed. But it’s easy to miss while criticzing that superficially they’ve yet to break much of the supernatural (and Supernatural*) mold, how many OTHER molds they’re breaking. Over time, they’ve been subverting not only some of the tropes of their genre, but larger and much riskier ones. They embrace some of the kinds of people that many mainstream series either omit from their universes entirely, or include in a half-hearted way out of a somewhat misguided sense of obligation. The best part is that Sleepy Hollow feels no need to draw attention to it; they simply let things happen organically when they need to for the characters, not because of some agenda. It’s in the fabric of the show.
The hard point to get across when women become frustrated with depictions of female characters in media is that 99% of the time no one has use for “a positive example”. You can’t make up for negative depictions based on gender, race, or any other factor in the past by trying to cram every positive trait you can think of into one character. It does nothing but create a marble statue on a pedestal, not a living and breathing character. It’s boring. And you can’t combat one stereotype with another, no matter how positive it is. Things only change when you remove the excuses not to see people as people. So Sleepy Hollow lets you draw your own conclusions based on what’s presented, positive and negative, rather than trying to spray paint a message on anyone’s forehead. No one is weighed down by the unreasonable burden of being an example, so neither is the audience. They won’t flip the channel because the show “isn’t for them” or become frustrated with being lectured. They’re just watching a story about the Headless Horseman, after all.
As I said in my essay on The World’s End, that’s the true power of sci-fi and fantasy, which we learned from Star Trek but seem to keep forgetting is in the arsenal. Maybe it’s a challenge set by the nature of the material; you have to write from a deeply human place to ground the story. The crazier it is, the more it needs that heart. If Sleepy Hollow keeps growing and exploring in their season finale** and beyond, I think they’ll prove they have heart in spades.
*Many people who are familiar with the CW series Supernatural are struggling a little with a separate but overlapping mythology. I’d point out to people who haven’t done much research into apocryphal Biblical texts or very old superstitions relating to protection against evil that MOST of this overlap comes from an actual shared history. Writers usually base their mythology on research, and I guarantee you Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow have some of the same books in their library because I have them, too. So I’m totally down with just saying “the hell with it, bring on SuperSleepy.”
** I know all the arguments for short seasons, but 13 episodes was not enough episodes.