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.)