Monday, 14 October 2013

Sleepy Hollow 1: Hollow History

The pilot episode of Sleepy Hollow may have had a fairly prosaic plot, but it was still absolutely fascinating.  Not all of the reasons for that are good.

Let's start with a major positive, then (only very minor spoilers here, folks). This the first American TV show I can remember watching in which fully three of the four most important characters - where "important" is measured by number of lines, rather than the order in which the people portraying them got their names thrown up on screen - are non-white, without the show itself focusing on that fact.  Shows about non-white families, or non-white areas, we have had.  Shows in which a bunch of people are thrown together by circumstance?  Not so much.

So hooray. A show - at least in its first episode - that is neither whitewashed, nor interested in making a fuss about that fact. Not that making a fuss is something I'm objecting to, of course; minority-centric programming I'm entirely down with.  I just like the idea that a minority white cast is something that can be slipped by people these days.

All that said, the show isn't entirely unproblematic in terms of racial issues. This is an unavoidable consequence of the show's bedrock premise, i.e. a white guy from the time of slavery wakes up one day to find himself questioned by a female black cop.

Obviously, this is a potential mine-field. Sleepy Hollow takes what is probably the easiest and most sensible route of out of this, which is to briefly reference it, have Ichabod Crane announce he was firmly on the side of the abolitionists, and then move on.  The problem is "easiest and most sensible" is a comparative position.  We still have a big problem here, something which has been described by Jack Graham (who as far as I know coined the term) as the "Nice-But-Then" character. Briefly stated, the NBT character is one written as holding essentially contemporary socially progressive opinions despite hailing from a place and time in which such opinions would be all but inconceivable. 

The problem here is two-fold.  Firstly, whilst there were certainly plenty of people at the end of the Eighteenth Century who were against the practice of slavery, this does not translate into a theory of emancipation so enlightened that the idea of being arrested and detained by a black woman would result in nothing more than offhand comments about being glad the slaves are free but not being keen on women in trousers.  This is not just an aesthetic objection, either. There are few ideas in contemporary America - and the West more generally - more harmful to actual social progress than the suggestion that racism is all but dead because no-one is in favour of direct governmental subjugation any more. By holding up a viciously scowling straw-man as the textbook example of racism, we allow actual racism to continue to breed.  A show in which Crane actually acted like an abolitionist from the Revolutionary War would be much more difficult to write, though, so instead we get this milquetoast nonsense.

The second problem is the damage it does to Crane's back-story.  For whatever reason (based on the episode itself, most likely a desire to replicate Elementary's success with added spookiness), the show presents him as an eccentric Englishman, who nevertheless betrayed his duty and joined George Washington because of the "tyranny" of King George III.  I don't have the slightest interest in defending that particular monarch's reputation, but I will point out two things.  Firstly, I don't really have much interest in hearing a white man complain about how tough he found things under British imperialism.  Secondly, the idea that a man so moved by the plight of slaves that he would publicly speak out against the practice would think it a swell idea to join up with an armed coalition that included Virginia, and which was at best just taking a breather from systematically exterminating the native population of north-eastern America?  That's just ludicrous. It reduces Crane to arguing taxation-without-representation was so bad a deal for white people - so tyrannous a practice - that he was compelled to pal up with Thomas fucking Jefferson.

This, to say the least, does not bode well for making Crane's man-out-of-time nature work satisfactorily.

(One could also argue the show flirts with some pretty old-school and ugly stereotyping of Asians at one point, but to say more would constitute a spoiler: you can check out TV Tropes and judge for yourself once you've seen the episode.)


Gooder said...

Times were tough for pretty much a anyone outside the gentry in colonial America in the 1800s think it's fair to say, so seems a bit odd to say you've no interest cos he's a white man.

Bushwhacked, kidnapped and sent across the atlantic against your will to fight a war in brutal conditions for little or no pay? Who, cares whitey! ;-)

And would it not be fair to say that living in a time at least 100 years before the concept of mass media someone could fairly not know the entire picture?

SpaceSquid said...

Fair enough, I was sort of thinking "reasonably well-off white man", which from his accent, his description of his job, and his access to the powerful he clearly was, and I should have mentioned that. Even so, the specific fact that Ichabod is telling a black woman that he joined up with the American rebels because the (largely slave-free) Brits across the pond were too dictatorial causes problems whatever his ethnic background.

The problem with the "doesn't know the whole picture" position is that it's trying to excuse a ficational character that the actual, real writer(s) should have be ashamed for having written. It's one thing to have a character who we learn is misinformed, or who is corrected or at least challenged by other characters. Leaving it as the final (and only) word on the matter is a big problem. Of course, it may be that later episodes deals with this; I don't know.

Gooder said...

I've not seen the show so only really spitballin'

But I'm guessing it's probably aiming more at Supernatural's toon than say The Wire so whilst possibly problamtic can see why it doesn't perhaps address a character's beliefs too deeply

SpaceSquid said...

First of all, I'd recommend at least giving the pilot a go. I'm not sure it's particularly your thing long-term, but just in terms of composition it's interesting.

And yes, given the intended audience of the show, it's not hard to understand why Crane's comments on both the 21st and 18th centuries were what they were. My thing is that doesn't really excuse the route taken as demonstrate there could be no unproblematic route.