Sleepy Hollow vs. Agents of SHIELD

I’ve only seen four episodes of Sleepy Hollow, and yet I’m hooked.  It’s not a great show, but it’s a fun show.

Yet it’s weird.  When people said, “Hey, we have this Marvel show created by Joss Whedon, starring Agent Coulson, and there’s this show about Ichabod Crane,” I know everyone was like, “Aww, man, Whedon is gonna be a good time!”  But Agents of SHIELD is like the functioning government bureaucracy it covers: workable, mostly humorless, marginally efficient but uninspiring.

And compared to Sleepy Hollow in particular, SHIELD’s lack of ambition is killing it.

I think the central problem is what SHIELD seems to think is really spectacular.  Last week’s episode, which was arguably the best to date, featured as its X-Files creepy moment bodies, hanging in air.  That was the crazy thing!  Something was causing magnetic impulses that caused bodies!  To hang!  In air!

Whereas the episode of Sleepy Hollow I just watched featured an albino mouthless sandman that, once it determined you were its victim, turned your fucking eyes to sand.  And then to fight it, you had to be stung on the belly by a scorpion and face it in the Dreamlands.

Which is the problem with SHIELD: it shoots low, so low, as if it’s never heard of Jack Kirby.  The reason people love the Marvel universe is that it’s got all of this crazy stuff: Tony Stark building a goddamned set of power armor in a cave!  Thor crossing the Rainbow Bridge with his goddamned hammer!  Spider-Man swinging through New York City while the newsmen yell out his name!

And SHIELD has… a bunch of guys in suits.  They’re cookie-cutter: the hot young buck, the hot female hacker, the nerdy hot scientists, the hot not-really-old old hand with Secret Trauma.  We’ve seen all this stuff before.  It’s recycled before we got here.  And what we’re getting is CSI procedurals with a touch of Marvel magic, but it feels grudging, as though really they don’t like all of these whacky superhero antics and don’t want to spend the budget on it.

Whereas Sleepy Hollow features Ichabod Crane, former revolutionary soldier and eidetic mastermind, who slept 200 years and woke up in 2013 as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (one of which is, yes, headless) are bearing down on a small New England town.

Ichabod Crane has more colorful story in him than we have seen in the entirety of Agents of SHIELD to this point.

Much has been made of Sleepy Hollow’s casual racial mixture, with three major black characters having conversations, but that’s not why Sleepy Hollow’s a hit.  Sleepy Hollow is a hit because each of those characters are already more interesting than Agent Coulson, and they’re all being forced into a larger plot that doesn’t wrap up neatly at the end of every episode.  Sleepy Hollow takes American history and throws it in a blender – last night had me going “Angry Hessian agents in 2013? Bring it on!” – and as such, what it winds up doing is creating a must-see TV we can’t get with Agents of Shield, because Agents of Shield seems to treat “craziness” as some sort of bizarre spice you can’t put too much on or who knows what’ll happen.

Agents of SHIELD is a bit of salsa next to a heaping vat of corn chips.

Sleepy Hollow is Sriracha sauce poured on a bowl of kim-chi.

And as such, SHIELD is disappointing people because they make such a big deal about “NEXT WEEK WE’LL SHOW YOU SUCH CRAZINESS LIKE YOU WOULDN’T BELIEVE!!!!” and the craziness is something the X-Files would barely have blinked at.  Whereas Sleepy Hollow is packed full of crazy, revels in it, rolls in it, and maybe it’s taking big risks that should have collapsed but hey, you don’t know where it’s going.

With last week’s SHIELD, twenty minutes in, I knew exactly how it would end.  I’m not the kind of guy who’s good at anticipating plots, either.  But – SPOILER WARNING – when one of the characters fell into deathly danger, I said, “Well, she’s infected with a horrible virus, I guess they’ll engineer a cure, because it’s too early in the season to kill anyone yet.”  And I bet pretty much everyone watching thought that too.

Whereas with Sleepy Hollow?  I have no idea how it’s going to turn out.  I watch because I’m four episodes in and there’s crazy Sandman people and Ichabod Crane talking to the Onstar lady and crazy sisters and all sorts of things where when they go to commercial break I actually don’t have a good sense of how it’ll end.

I think that predictability is killing SHIELD.  It’s a 1970s show in 2010 trappings, where everything is going to be wrapped up at the end of the episode.  It’s a CBS show for an audience that doesn’t much want CBS, and I don’t know how it’s playing with the CBS crowd but considering it’s hemhorrhaging ratings I suspect the sixty-plus crowd isn’t tuning in either.

Maybe Sleepy Hollow will get too wild and lose us.  That’s always a danger.  But better a high-wire act that falls off than a guy walking the beat.

4 Comments

  1. BenjaminJB
    Nov 8, 2013

    Interesting–it sounds like SHIELD has turned one of its major strengths into a weakness: because it’s tied to existing and currently-profitable IP, they’re hamstrung as to what they can do or show.

    I mean, they could introduce Doctor Strange–but that would be a low budget version that someone at corporate might nix since they have talks for a DS movie. And if they wanted to introduce their own supers, it would have to pass several hurdles: does this make sense with the larger Marvel universe? Will it just look like we’ve filed the serial numbers off our own IP?

    So while the affiliation with the Marvel movies set the bar high for SHIELD, it might be an anchor too.

  2. Chris Hallquist
    Nov 8, 2013

    >And what we’re getting is CSI procedurals with a touch of Marvel magic, but it feels grudging, as though really they don’t like all of these whacky superhero antics and don’t want to spend the budget on it.

    I wonder if part of the problem with Agents of SHIELD is they don’t HAVE the budget for all the stuff they want to do.

    When I saw the first episode, when J. August Richards’ character showed off his powers for the first time, I thought, “That was awesome! Normally you don’t get to see stuff like that on a television show!” But it quickly became obvious (to me, anyway) that that moment was the product of carefully-orchestrated special effects budget stretching.

    For crying out loud, first season Buffy tried to make staking vamps happen off-screen as much as possible, because the dusting effect was so expensive. And then you read the comics, and it’s clear that part of the reason the comics were so ridiculous is that Joss Whedon was blowing off seven years of frustration with limited special effects budgets, so that’s why you got things like turning Dawn into a giant for no reason.

  3. Chris Hallquist
    Nov 8, 2013

    “…because it’s too early in the season to kill anyone yet.”

    With Joss Whedon running the show, there was a moment there where I honestly wasn’t sure. I bet he would love to pull something like that if the executives would let him.

  4. Chris Hallquist
    Nov 8, 2013

    “…where everything is going to be wrapped up at the end of the episode.”

    Not technically true. They’ve got Project Centipede, what really happened with Coulson’s resurrection, and Skye’s parents. The real problem is that, while they’re trying to have longer plot arcs, they haven’t made us care about any of them yet.

    It reminds me of season 1 Supernatural: nominally it was about the brothers searching for their dad, but most episodes did so little with that plot it was hard to care about it.

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