On “Sleepy Hollow”, episodic analysis, and the benefits of being fun

“Sleepy Hollow” is just damn fun. Damn, damn fun.

That’s a semi-horrible piece of criticism, but criticism isn’t what I’m attempting here. Rather, it’s a celebration of a show that has no business being as good as it is, even if I’m still not quite sure if it’s actually good at this point. The past fifteen years have seen some amazing television, and with it some amazing television criticism, but those two in tandem have also marginalized other programs as somehow lesser because critics couldn’t easily produce lengthy close readings. Some such as Alan Sepinwall have the ability to adjust review length based on interest or content, but by and large, the episodic review industry demands a lot of words about a lot of shows. And it’s often not the fault of either the show or the person covering it that an episode doesn’t merit 1,300 words of analysis. But it’s important to stop thinking about the amount of analysis an episode can generate as the sole metric by which to rate a show’s success.

sleepy-hollow-1×04-the-lesser-key-of-solomon-6.jpgI really enjoy “Sleepy Hollow” while simultaneously being DELIGHTED that I don’t have to write about it every week. That’s not a slight on the show so much as my inability to talk about the program in the context what constitutes a “normal” episodic recap. My take on tonight’s episode, “The Lesser Key Of Solomon,” would repeat my thoughts on the past three installments: a quick-moving plot, some excellent work by the lead actors, a mythology that seems interesting now but certainly is finite in content, and at least two moments that produce as many laughs as the best comedy airing on TV right now. There’s not a lot to particularly say about the show each week, but there’s a lot that this show is doing particularly well each week.

There’s always talk about giving shows time to establish themselves in order to actually assess them properly. There are lots of people willing to give “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” lots of rope because of the pedigree involved, and that’s their prerogative. But there’s nothing that says 1) any show has to be great at all things out of the gate, and 2) every show will inevitably get better over time. “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” might achieve greatness down the line, but it doesn’t do 15% of the things that “Sleepy Hollow” already does well. The two shows are distinct entities, but in terms of achieving the individual goals each show has established, “Sleepy Hollow” is scoring high marks while “SHIELD” is still trying to get off the ground.

The point is this: there are just too many shows on right now to give precious TV time to shows that don’t give me confidence that they aren’t sure what they are trying to do. It’s hard to write about how great “Sleepy Hollow” is right now, because the formats that are popular right now in the critical world don’t really support essays about how freakin’ fun it is to watch Ichabod Crane make an OnStar employee cry with tales of his purgatory-stationed witch wife. Maybe one could make the case that the show should lean into its action-comedy moments more frequently, since the bracing lightness of those moments keeps the show from drowning in its sewer-based settings. But that’s about what I want the show to be, not what it actually is. What is it? A simple procedural steeped in enough mythology to give it depth, enough paranormal activity to give fans of “The X-Files” and “Fringe” hope for something approximating the acmes of those two programs, and enough narrative speed to please those that keep waiting for programs like “Revolution” to actually start telling its tale.

It might turn into a lot more than that. It may completely flame out before John Noble turns up later this season. But it has more interesting elements now than any new show on the air. Even if later episodes of “Masters Of Sex” give that program more heft, and more for critics to discuss, there’s something about the pure pleasure of watching a show understand itself and execute beautifully on that level. There’s always been room for both types of shows. But we rarely give big platforms for shows that are just trying to be fun and actually succeeding in the attempt. Saying something is “fun” doesn’t negate critical analysis of it. It’s just a different muscle to flex. I know how to cover a show like “Masters Of Sex”, but so do lots of people. I want to figure out a way to cover the other shows, which means a new way of covering them. I don’t really have an answer to what that is, but I imagine something that involves approaching the show on its own terms rather than imposing a pre-existing model atop it is probably the way to go.

In the seeming billions of words written about a certain select number of shows, we sometimes don’t have any words left over to express our appreciation for those outside that small circle. As notions of what constitutes “quality” programming starts to widen at the end of the anti-hero era, it’s worth not merely looking at shows that don’t fit into that spectrum, but finding ways to write about them as well. Not only can we expand the types of shows we watch, but the types of shows we discuss.