SPLIT | SCREEN: Sympathy for the Devil

Reconsidering the worth of network horror.
Reconsidering the worth of network horror. // Creative Commons

GC: It’s hard to do TV horror; maybe there’s something about its rhythms of terror and catharsis that doesn’t mesh with hourlong serialized programming. The most well-known examples are long gone but enduringly buzzy, and even these can be tough going. When my sister and I tried to dive into the iconic and fetishistic “Twin Peaks,” the first pair of episodes was so emotionally exhausting that it turned back our best faith efforts. Should’ve checked it out on Hulu before getting her the DVDs for Christmas. Shouldn’t have watched it at night.

Still, this last year saw the genesis of two striking and notably well-received entries in the genre: “Hannibal” and “Sleepy Hollow.” They’re not alone on the scene, with “American Horror Story” and “The Walking Dead” — the first fairly successful and the second triumphantly so — standing ready to welcome new company. I’m not going to dwell on those, partly on the grounds that I don’t watch them and partly on the grounds that they air on FX and AMC, respectively. Cable doesn’t count. One additional elision: Tumblr spills enough ink on “Supernatural,” and the show doesn’t need any more attention here.

Without caveating too extensively the narrative and aesthetic gulfs that separate “Hannibal” and “Sleepy Hollow,” I think they speak to some neat emergent properties of successful network horror. One element is the near fan-fictional spirit of adaptation that gives these shows so much of their energy; another is the triumph of design. The loving abuse of recognizable cultural artifacts overlaps nicely with the cycle of anticipation and subversion that horror requires (well, all narrative requires it, but horror more intensively so.) This dynamic is a clever way of effecting continuity between the uncanny and the unremarkable, the insinuation of dread into the familiar. “Hannibal” is more successful on this front (it’s easy not to notice that Mads Mikkelsen’s homicidal habits aren’t confirmed until midseason) but the same energy is at work in “Sleepy Hollow.” Consider how it imagines a redcoat as a demon in last week’s episode.

SN: You hit upon a shared quality of “Hannibal” and “Sleepy Hollow” that’s worth underscoring: They were both notably well received. That is, no one anticipated their success. “Hannibal,” at least, could have been conceived of as a network remix of Showtime’s “Dexter.” The premise, which comes out of an already familiar franchise, isn’t difficult to process. (It also helps that it was originally written as a 13-episode midseason replacement, the novella of the televsion medium.) At face value, “Sleepy Hollow” is a mess: Its convoluted plot involves a time-traveling Revolutionary War soldier, the spirit of his witch wife, a police detective haunted by her past and her evil twin sister — that’s just for starters. Throw in an undead colleague, the Free Masons and pacts with the devil, and what you have is tonal confusion, to say the least. Commentators have noticed that “Sleepy Hollow” was written by a relative newcomer to the business, and it shows.

Yet “Sleepy Hollow” is undeniably descended from that totemic classic, “The X-Files,” which ran for nine seasons and nearly a decade, despite — and perhaps because of – its devil-may-care attitude towards coherence. Ichabod Crane and Lieutenant Abbie Mills are the next coming of Mulder and Scully. “Sleepy Hollow” and “The X-Files” share a similar sensibility: a totally endearing combination of goofiness and absolute commitment to their premises. No winking allowed. What results is an hour of television filled with genuine laughs and genuine scares. To me, the weirdest thing about “Sleepy Hollow” is that it seems to belong to a gentler age of television, when networks gave seemingly misbegotten genre dramas time to grow.

GC: Part of the lesson here might be the unsung valor and experimental spirit of the midseason replacement and the limited order. In my ongoing effort to revive interest in NBC’s short-lived “The Cape,” I’ll note that “Hannibal” emerged out of the same space as that show and the same space as the likewise ill-fated “Awake” (NB: the Cape’s nemesis, Chess, also guest starred recently on “Sleepy Hollow.” Suggestive, no?) These were hugely daring shows, mostly in style, though in the case of “Awake” also in narrative. And they came out of the same network that’s constantly pilloried for stifling creativity in its comedies (even as it keeps alive the only comedies critics seem to enjoy watching). Yes, “The Cape” and “Awake” were cancelled; of course they would get cancelled. Both were profoundly flawed. We ought to emphasize the fact that these novelties saw the light of day at all, and I’m happy to hang my hat on the possibly silly suggestion that they cleared the way for “Hannibal” and “Sleepy Hollow.”

SN: A mystery goes along with that lesson. It’s one for the insiders to illuminate or for the cultural historians to figure out years down the line: how these shows came to look so damn good, given their limitations. In “Hannibal’s” case, our shock at the gore — you can show bodies this way on network TV? — is part and parcel of our enjoyment of its glossy production design. For “Sleepy Hollow,” the beauty lies in each episode’s Big Bad, the imagined monsters that would make Guillermo del Toro jealous. The horror of these moments is inextricable from their weird and utterly unexpected beauty. I don’t know whether these shows have a lot more funding than we realize or whether nowadays they can do more with less, but the result is gorgeous, and terrifying. Their success goes against the conventional wisdom that network TV lacks the practical and imaginative resources to surprise us the way that cable can.

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