How ‘Sleepy Hollow’ Lost Its Head and Betrayed Its Last Fans

Fox’s once-beloved supernatural drama has been canceled after four seasons—no surprise to those who watched its story unravel and its black leads sidelined in favor of white characters.

David Johnson/FOX

When Fox announced Tuesday that its once-beloved supernatural drama Sleepy Hollow had been canceled, it seemed surprising that it didn’t happen sooner. Critics and fans of the show had considered it all but dead, and its fourth season renewal last year was met with indifference and disappointment. It was quickly shuffled off toward the Friday night TV block, which is generally considered death row for any scripted show. If this had happened after its first or second season, there might have been an outcry. But something went horribly wrong along the way, and the once-buzzy show became a case of wasted potential. Now Sleepy Hollow will be remembered for its creative implosion and lack of faith in its diverse cast. That is, if anyone will remembers it at all.

On paper, Sleepy Hollow should have been a disaster from the beginning. Taking a 19th-century story about a headless horseman, using American history as the backdrop, adding a load of secret societies and conspiracy theories plus some supernatural mythology? None of it should have worked, but it did, in large part thanks to sharp, suspenseful writing and the show’s capable cast. Tom Mison did his part as Ichabod Crane, but just as crucial was Nicole Beharie as the cop Abbie Mills. Both actors shared the right chemistry to deliver punchlines and carry the world around them. The show’s first season balanced camp and superstition, and moved like a rocket towards its cliffhanger finale. Flaws in the story went largely concealed because the cast held it all together. Actors made the show believable, despite its ridiculous premise, and their characters’ race to save the world addictive.

But at some point during the second season, the showrunners decided to abandon everything that made the show great. If the first season was short and effective with a 13-episode arc, season two at 18 episodes was a convoluted mess. Ichabod and Abbie’s quest to stop a demon and the four horsemen of the apocalypse turned into a soap opera filled with ridiculous grudges and monsters-of-the-week. The show’s tightly-wound story became bloated with syndication-friendly filler episodes. And previously-established rules of the world in which the show took place became irrelevant again and again, making it harder to suspend disbelief. Later efforts to right the series were just not enough: season three tried to redeem the franchise but failed, and the reboot known as season four was largely met with dismissal.

Crucially, characterization of the show’s villains also suffered in season two. The reveal of Ichabod’s son as the second horseman, played by John Parish, was the biggest twist of season one, yet season two reduced him from cunning agent to a melodramatic villain with parental issues. Or take the Headless Horseman, the unstoppable big baddie of the first season who lost his sense of purpose by the second year. Once a villain with a simple but enjoyable arc, he was made silly through overemphasis on his feelings for the witch Katrina, who fell in love with Ichabod instead. Sleepy Hollow, once a thriller, had shifted into a nighttime sleeping aid.

Still, the show’s treatment of its diverse cast was the biggest offense for most fans. Sleepy Hollow had been a rare, refreshing opportunity for a Black woman, accompanied by a mostly Black cast, to lead a supernatural-themed drama. The show’s fan base, vocally supportive on Twitter and fan sites, also included many people of color. But in the show’s second season, Abbie’s story was sidelined in favor of Katrina, whose love triangle with Ichabod and Headless had become grating. Katrina’s arc became messier and more reductive as time rolled on, with her often ending up a damsel in distress. The show’s decision to center her, then, came with a message: the Black lead of a show is replaceable. As the ultimate insult, Abbie was killed at the end of season three, sacrificing herself to save her white partner Ichabod. If the actress Beharie had wanted to exit the show, no one could blame her: her character became second to Ichabod and her screen time had been significantly reduced. It was clear the show’s writers had belittled her importance.

Other Black characters in the show suffered similar fates. Orlando Jones, who played skeptical cop turned believer Frank Irving, was sidelined in a contrived plot that turned him into a pawn for the bad guys. Likewise, Abbie’s sister Jenny was pushed to the background to make room for Hawley, a bro-y white guy who consistently wore out his welcome. Both characters had blossomed through their own arcs in season one, but were given sparser roles come season two in favor of white characters. By season three, Frank and other people of color like Andy Brooks (John Cho) and Leena Reyes (Sakina Jeffery) had vanished. Diversity, which had always been important to the show’s fans, became a revolving door of expendability. With diversity of now all-time importance in Hollywood, why did Sleepy Hollow make such regressive decisions? The show had never shied away from issues of slavery and race, which made the issue all the more perplexing.

While behind-the-scenes details of the show’s demise are sparse, one can guess at what probably happened. Maybe it was a classic case of studio interference, or an attempt to appeal to a “broader” (read: whiter) mainstream audience. Perhaps the writers never planned beyond the first season. For all of the potential and fun twists in the beginning, Sleepy Hollow abandoned its formula and drove away fans of different colors. Still, for the inevitable reboot or remake of the show, there are two lessons to be learned here: stick to your guns, and do right by your characters of color.