The Tragedy of ‘Sleepy Hollow’
When I first heard about the show Sleepy Hollow, it was on Tumblr. I’d seen trailers for a few months leading up to the show’s premier. The cast was met with a lot of excitement at various cons and similar events. But what I recall most about learning of this show was how excited I was to see a black woman leading a supernatural themed show.
Black women in sci-fi and fantasy is a bit of a rarity. Certainly, they are featured, and we have people like Nichelle Nichols to thank for paving the way for the Candice Pattons, Danai Guriras, and Nicole Beharies. Finally, with Sleepy Hollow, I was seeing a woman who looked like me leading a show in a genre that I loved. The show partially revolved around her character’s life history and she was essential to the story itself. She wouldn’t be killed off, or so I thought.
The most amazing thing about Sleepy Hollow, for me, was the fandom. There were so many people who loved the show, loved the characters, and held the writers accountable for creating a story that honored the people within. These were people who Orlando Jones, a fan favorite and de fact social media liaison, interacted with and made feel a part of the show.
It was clear from the beginning that FOX had a smash hit on their hands with Sleepy Hollow. Some even called it the network’s next X-Files, a beloved sci-fi phenomenon. The show was incredibly diverse, boasting extremely talented actors and actresses that included Nicole Beharie, Orlando Jones, Amandla Stenberg, and John Cho. The ratings were strong. The story was intriguing.
Yet, the show began to face a struggle with ratings as well as creative direction in the second season. Lead character Abbie Mills was effectively sidelined in favor of a story line primarily centered around Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane and his family drama with estranged wife Katrina van Tassel, played by Katia Winter. Fans lamented this change and also the fact that Abbie Mills did not appear to be a well-rounded character.
Did she have friends outside the impending apocalypse? Did she go on dates? Did she ever wear anything that wasn’t a jacket and jeans? Who was she aside from her duty as a Witness who had to, with the help of Ichabod Crane, persevere through various trials and tribulations to end the apocalypse? Fans quickly grew bored and wary of this as the previously close-knit relationship between Abbie Mills and Ichabod Crane began to fray.
There seemed to be hope when Katia Winter’s Katrina was killed off the show that the show might return to what made it so successful in season 1, despite the fact that ratings had slipped and the show had hardly been promoted in its sophomore season. Fans pulled together and advocated for a third season of the show, which essentially went from creatively misguided, to choppy writing that did not seem to focus on building the mythology of the show.
But perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the show overall, and especially with the third season, is that there was obvious chemistry between Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills and Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane. There seemed to be a lot of baiting with regards to will-they-or-won’t-they moments that led many fans into believing Ichabbie was finally coming to fruition.
But then everything changed when the fire nation attacked. Not really.
Orlando Jones, who played beloved character Frank Irving, left the show. The show was no longer the diverse and well executed masterpiece it once was. The third season’s erratic plot and choppy writing made Abbie’s behavior seem out of character. Ratings were dismal. It became clear that the writers were out of touch with the fanbase. There was next to no promotion of the show, and it had been moved to the Friday night time slot. To make a long story short, the show was becoming an absolute train wreck.
But we could not stop watching.
In the season 3 finale, Abbie Mills was killed off, sacrificing herself to save Ichabod Crane. In a scene where Ichabod begged Abbie to come back, she stated that, “Abbie Mills has done what she was supposed to do.” Ichabod asked, “What is there for me, in a world without you?”, essentially feeding fan excitement that Ichabbie might finally be a thing even if Abbie was just killed. Maybe she would come back. But it only got worse from there. Perhaps the most infuriating moment was Abbie Mills, a black woman who led this show, whose life was essential to the show’s story, told white Revolutionary War veteran, “My job was to carry you forward. My job is done.”
Did the writers not understand how odd that would sound? A black woman who, through the course of the show had been sidelined and given flimsy writing, telling a Revolutionary War veteran who was alive and well during slavery that her only job was to carry him forward?
As one can imagine, the decision to kill Abbie Mills off of Sleepy Hollow was met with intense backlash by the fans, spawning the hashtag #AbbieMillsDeservedBetter. Many fans vowed to stop watching, stating that the show had no viewership if Abbie Mills was no longer in it. Things were made worse when FOX decided to renew the floundering show for a fourth season and search for a new lead, with many fans called for the show to be cancelled.
But with the cancellation of black-led shows like Pitch and Rosewood, I could not help but wonder if FOX had something against shows led by persons of color. In the case of both Pitch and Rosewood, lack of viewership was cited as the reason for cancellation. But considering that FOX has a contract with the MLB to broadcast their baseball games, why had they not promoted Pitch, a show about the first woman to play in the MLB, during the biggest event in baseball: The World Series? It was a prime opportunity to bring in more viewers but fans saw little to no commercials for the show. At times, it feels difficult to believe that the network might not be shooting itself in the foot by leaving these shows to hang out and dry.
Ultimately, the news of the cancellation of Sleepy Hollow comes as a relief to those who had previously been such avid fans of the show. The downfall of the show should be proof of what not to do when you have potential cult-classic on your hands. The demise of Sleepy Hollow has also proved that fans have a huge role in shows and their direction whether they know it or not. As writers, it is important to honor the characters you’ve written while also staying in touch with fans and being aware of how what you’re writing translates over to them. Upon Nicole Beharie’s exit from the show, it was predicted that there would be a significant decline in ratings and there were.
The general takeaway here?
Let women lead. Give programs the attention and support they deserve. Diverse should not mean disposable. In the age of Twitter and Tumblr, where viewership is now built around fandoms generating buzz for shows as well as processing what they see via meta posts, fanart, and engagement with cast members, writers are now held accountable for what they contribute to a show. They are under more scrutiny now than they ever were in previous periods. Viewers expect their writers to actually care about what they write and be mindful of how it is interpreted.
Is it too much to ask that they live up to that?