Considering the image that still comes to mind at the mention of the name Ichabod Crane– an unattractive, physically weak, easily intimidated Revolutionary-era schoolteacher, as Disney drew him –the fact that British actor Tom Mison has made him one of this TV season’s hottest characters may seem like a minor miracle.
That is, it might appear that way to those who have not seen Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow,” which returns with a new episode 9pm ET/PT Monday. Passionate fans of the series connected with Mison’s Crane from the very first hour, watching him swing a sword to behead the muscular Hessian that would go on to become the famous Headless Horseman during an 18th century battle that was going badly for the American Revolutionaries.
In this version of the tale, that’s before things started to really get weird.
“Sleepy Hollow’s” Ichabod Crane is a man plucked out of his time and plunked down in ours, where he’s not as thrown off by horseless carriages and electricity as he is by the idea that there’s a Starbucks on every corner and that Americans pay sales tax at a rate of nearly 10 percent without blinking an eye. He has no problem relating a tale of his lost love to a disembodied voice over of a vehicle’s emergency response system. Why not? When the forces of Hell are slipping into on the modern world in the form of demons, undead witches and plagues that cross through time, all heralds of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, mechanical innovations seem perfectly plausible.
“I always like to have faith that an audience will suspend their disbelief if you present it to them in the right way, ” Mison recently told a group of reporters. “I find it peculiar when people scoff at one bold idea, and yet they’ll then turn over and watch a man travel through time in a police phone box. …Once you can get an audience to go with you on an idea then you can just go anywhere, and that’s where the fun stuff happens.”
But the central partnership between Crane and his modern-day ally, “leftenant” Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) is the heart of the series. Ichabod and Abbie are each nursing wounded hearts, as he pines away for a wife trapped in Purgatory, Katrina (Katia Winter), while Abbie contends with both the loss of her mentor and father figure (Clancy Brown) and the need to mend her frayed bond with her sister Jenny (Lyndie Greenwood).
These humanizing layers transform “Sleepy Hollow” from an exciting and frequently humorous genre show into a study of faith, family, redemption and undying commitment — factors come together beautifully in this week’s new episode, “The Sin Eater,” guest starring John Noble. Newcomers to the series may want to watch the pilot (currently available on Amazon Instant Video,) but the show is easy enough to comprehend without viewing previous episodes. Besides, with its flashbacks showing Ichabod’s transformation from redcoat to George Washington’s most crucial weapon in the war, this is the strongest entry of “Sleepy Hollow’s” 13-episode first season.
Already renewed for season two, “Sleepy Hollow” has more the time to further enrich its mythology, much to the delight of “sleepy heads” (or is it “hollowers”?) excitedly watching every moment of Ichabod and Abbie’s adventures. Mison, a relatively new face to American audiences, seems to be having the time of his life.
“Every chance to show a different side to Ichabod is great…as a very obvious example, the difference between Ichabod we see in the 18th Century and the modern-day Ichabod,” Mison said. “There are different sides to him, and equally the well behaved and the less well behaved, the more unhinged Ichabod. There’s plenty of that to come.”
Last week Mison chatted on the phone with a group of TV reporters about his role, his love of history, and what’s coming up for Crane and the “leftenant” in future episodes. Granted, he was fairly tight-lipped about the future, but read on…
On Ichabod losing his manners: “When things start to get very personal, when there are revelations that are personal attacks on Crane and his past, that’s when the rules start to fly out of the window, and he starts misbehaving a little bit more,” the actor teased.
On maintaining the delicate balance between the comedy and the drama in each episode: “The temptation could be to just go nuts on the comedy; not only for me but for the writers as well because there’s a wealth of things we can do with that. We worked out very early on… that the only way you can really sell the comedy is to play it as straight as the serious stuff. Finding the balance between the confusion and those funny scenes and the more serious, ‘Oh my God, the apocalypse is coming’ scenes.”
On Ichabod’s (hilarious) encounters with modern technology: “When we go into a new set, it’s always nice to have a look around and wonder what Ichabod would be attracted to or repelled by, and what would be baffling. And it’s kind of… everything. Everything’s new. There will be plenty more of that… there’s a wealth of stuff to mine into.”
On Ichabod’s high intellect and the fact that he isn’t a jerk about it: “Everyone always goes to the fact that he would be lost in the modern world and everything is above him and baffling. What I find really fascinating is that any room he walks into, he’s probably the most intelligent person in that room. But no one will allow him to show that because everyone thinks he’s insane… That’s really fun. He knows that he’s cleverer than everyone else, but his manners won’t allow him to tell people to stop being stupid.”
On when (if ever) Ichabod will trade in his 18th century threads for modern clothing: We quite liked…giving Ichabod an iconic look, which I think everyone’s managed to achieve rather nicely. In terms of the character, he’s a long way from home — 250 years away from home– so anything that he can hold on to from his time, I think he certainly will.
“Any time you think of how much he stinks, just think of it as a big stinking security blanket that he carries around with him.