Oct 22 2013 2:00pm

Sleepy Hollow: The New Supernatural?

The other day, I Facebook messaged a college friend who recently moved to Florida. She and I gush and trade gossip about Supernatural regularly as a means to keep in touch, and that day was no different. “Hey,” I said. “Have you started watching Sleepy Hollow, yet?!!?” She replied with an indifferent “Eh.”  When I asked what her hesitation was, she explained what should have been obvious to me all along: Sleepy Hollow was pretty obviously ripping off Supernatural.

At the risk of starting a fan war, she has a point.

I kept watching Sleepy Hollow and the similarities kept piling up. That demon that pops up in the first episode as a eerily blurry figure in the forest to resurrect the four horsemen of apocalypse sounds like something straight out of the Supernatural writers' room because is it: That's almost the exact plot line from season five of the show.  Supernatural practically invented the apocalypse plotline for television; there’s a new one every season. And the headless horseman as Death? Yeah, we’ve seen Death before, too and he’s way more likeable over with Winchesters. As the show progresses, more horseman are revealed—as was the case in Supernatural.

Last week’s Sleepy Hollow episode, “John Doe,” dealt directly with the missing American colony of Roanoke—as I watched I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The parallel to the Supernatural episode “Croatoan” was so direct that it bordered on homage. Sleepy Hollow is dealing with some serious biblical end-times shenanigans here, but that’s territory we’ve seen covered, and well, for coming up on nine years with Sam and Dean. Devils, demons, angels, Lucifer himself—God is the only character who hasn’t had made his appearance yet. That’s what Supernatural does: it reinvents biblical myths for the small screen.

I keep watching Sleepy Hollow because I want to know where this new show will diverge from its predecessor. There are so many aspects of it that I’m hooked on already, just five episodes in: Crane’s sharp and snarky wit partnered with all-around badass Abbie Mills is such a charming combo—throw Orlando Jones in there (who might be in a coven?) and I’m watching for the characters more than for what seems so far to be a copy-cat plot line. The diversity of the cast is extraordinary and it is such a pleasure to see television actively casting minorities in leading roles. The female characters, too, are complex and subversive. As a lady-geek, seeing women break into this genre of television makes me glow. Diversity and women are two things Supernatural seriously lacks and if Sleepy Hollow thinks they can fill in the gap, I welcome the change.

The truth is, I might just be bitter fan not ready to let go of my favorite demon-fighting brothers. Because Sleepy Hollow is shaping up to be a seriously good show: suspenseful, scary, with palpable chemistry between the characters—all the markers of what makes Supernatural great, too. I remember watching it for the first time and thinking “Are you kidding me? Demons?” It was the emotional bonds and the relationships formed and broken between characters that turned me into a true fangirl. I gave up criticizing the often silly plotlines and just enjoyed watching Sam and Dean argue in the Impala. I think Sleepy Hollow has the same potential. Maybe what is similar about the two shows is actually what makes them both great.

Elisabeth Sherman is a graduate student Columbia University. You can follow her on twitter.

Robert H. Bedford
1. RobB
I haven't watched SUPERNATURAL, but the vibe I've been getting from SLEEPY HOLLOW is that it is FRINGE with Fantasy/supernatural rather than Science/pseudo science. Of course, John Noble coming on board only strengthens that feel for me.
Christopher Bennett
2. ChristopherLBennett
I think you're forgetting that Buffy the Vampire Slayer actually had a line once about having to learn the plural of "apocalypse." Supernatural was following BTVS's lead in having a different apocalyptic (or at least cataclysmically demonic) arc every year.
3. lainey
No really, have you seen Buffy? Because I thought Supernatural was ripping off Buffy with the whole apocalypse per season thing and Buffy was ripping off...whatever came before. It just goes on and on. At least Sleepy Hollow is less obnoxious than Supernatural.
4. hgralb
I would say that this may be a case of "The Simpsons did it". Sleepy Hollow is following the same Freak of the Week formula that many shows have used before and are still using (e.g. Smallville & Arrow). It's a good formula for a show to use first season to help establish characters and engage audiences without throwing too much at them at once.

Even Supernatural did it by having poltergeists, wendigos, and witches early on. They used to fight a demon for an entire season and now they're shanking 5 or 6 in one fight.

I think the two shows have a different voice and merely converge on the eery woooo-eeeee-ooooo sense of the supernatural. I'm also liking the flashbacks (mainly from Highlander withdrawl) and am glad to see that the writers are taking the time travel seriously (i.e. Calling it eidetic instead of photographic memory).

Supernatural is at the top of my list, but I wouldn't start comparing the two until Sleepy Hollow has a couple of seasons behind it.
Christopher Bennett
6. ChristopherLBennett
@3: Well, the modern pattern of doing each season as a complete story arc pretty much originated with Babylon 5, which ran from 1994-8. Buffy began in 1997. So it would've probably been the first horror/supernatural show to follow that seasonal-arc structure. I think The X-Files pretty much just had a single, loose ongoing arc; there were season-ending cliffhangers, but they didn't really conclude an overarching seasonal storyline or wrap up one Big Bad to pave the way for another the following year.
Marilynn Byerly
7. MByerly
The first writer or TV show who uses a source doesn't get dibs on it. If that were the case, then no one would write anything because someone beat them to it many years ago.

SUPERNATURAL and SLEEPY HOLLOW are working from the same sources so there is natural cross over in subjects and even the way those sources are used.

Plus, SUPERNATURAL has been around nine years or so which makes it likely that there's not a source they haven't used. That's one reason they've stayed in the Judeo-Christian demons and angels story arcs for so many seasons. They have all but run out of many of the spooky urban legends, ghost stories, and other horror elements they mined early in the show.
Jenny Thrash
8. Sihaya
"Do you know how you got that dent, in your top lip? Way back, before you were born, I told you a secret, then I put my finger there and I said "Shhhhh!"
Anybody middle age spent their college years watching movies and shows that were peppered with Apocalypse and Apocrypha. I was able to fill in my bingo board just during Sleepy Hollow's pilot. I wonder which archangel we'll see first. Supernatural isn't new, not on those subjects at least. What distinguishes each of the two shows is that their characters are interesting. Yeah, there's one bookish partner who's lost his love and one butt kicker, but no one is mistaking Abby and Ichabod for Sam and Dean. The actors and writers are all too good at defining their distinguising characteristics. You're watching a couple of good variations on the Apocalypse procedural; enjoy them.
Matt Stoumbaugh
9. LazerWulf
I think the two shows have a different voice and merely converge on the eery woooo-eeeee-ooooo sense of the supernatural.
I see 'woooo-eeeee-oooooo' and I think of the Doctor Who theme song.
John C. Bunnell
10. JohnCBunnell
As Christopher said elsewhere not too long ago, you can draw parallels between almost any two stories/franchises/what-have-you -- with varying degrees of aptness and accuracy. Supernatural could also be described as "Knight Rider with demons", because, like Knight Rider, its premise has its heroes always on the move, in a different place every week.

Personally, I think Sleepy Hollow's template runs closer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- Sleepy Hollow as the East Coast's version of Sunnydale, with the "secret history" of the American Revolution standing in for the Slayer mythology -- than it does to Supernatural (which has ultimately embraced a fairly narrow spectrum of the occult). But all three shows are in the same broad category.

What the discussion mostly goes to show is that it isn't the idea that matters nearly so much as the execution. There've been several attempts at "secret history" shows in the last two or three years -- Veritas: the Quest for one, Zero Hour for another -- and most of them have been very, very short-lived. Sleepy Hollow looks to be the one that's worked, and my sense is that one reason it's done so is that its execution has been on the mark.
11. Donna2
WRONG. Sleepy Hollow is clearly the successor to FRINGE, at least where the fanciful treatment of history is concerned (Sleepy Hollow is to history, as Fringe was to science).
Marilynn Byerly
12. MByerly
Actually, the first traveling buddies solving problems TV show was ROUTE 66, not KNIGHT RIDER or SUPERNATURAL.

And, yes, I am old enough to remember that show.
13. ChuckEye
Sleepy Hollow is a lot of things that have been done before, from Highlander (the TV series) to Forever Knight to New Amsterdam, with a touch of Brimstone or The Crow for good measure.
Alyson Mahn
14. AyeJaySedai
I think it is unfair to say that Sleepy Hollow is ripping off Supernatural simply because they are both pulling from Revelation, because they are both pulling from Revelation. It isn't like SPN wrote the bible, not were they the first ones to adapt it to the small screen. Almost every supernatural based show gets to it eventually. It is what the writers do with the material that matters. SPN Death is nothing like SH Death. The Roanoke plots both had disease, but how they got to the cure was different.

SH probably has more in common with Grimm than SPN, as it is a supernatural based proceedural involving snark and conspiracies. The main characters are a cop/detective and a wacky sidekick, and the location is pretty constant. The two shows also have a diverse cast and stronge ladies, which is one of the things that SPN lacked when I still watched it. I wouldn't say SH is ripping off Grimm either since they tell different stories.

Side Note: I think I saw Renard's brother in the last SH hollow trailer.
15. Herb5266
To accuse a work of speculative fiction of being derivative is to damn it with the faintest censure possible.
Matthew Watkins
16. oraymw
The Epic of Gilgamesh is about Gilgamesh, who is the king of Uruk, and his job is to protect his people. He meets up with this guy named Enkidu, who is a primitive person, who is kind of stuck in the past, and not used to modern civilization. Together, they face supernatural creatures, in order to protect the city from destruction, and Enkidu gradually becomes more civilized and used to modern society...

So I guess Sleepy Hollow is actually ripping off the Epic of Gilgamesh, and this trope is older than dirt?
Marcus W
17. toryx
This is actually what I've been saying since I watched the first episode of Sleepy Hollow. It's so obviously a rip-off of Supernatural that I'd rather just re-watch the exploits of Sam and Dean.
Christopher Bennett
18. ChristopherLBennett
@17: But as others have said, the problem with the whole "ripoff" meme is that it's misunderstanding how creativity works on a fundamental level: there are only so many stories and concepts that get reused over and over, and what makes them original is how they're told. Yes, this show and Supernatural are both entries in the "battling demons to ward off the Apocalypse" genre, but its their characters and their style that make them distinctive.

Personally I could never get into Supernatural; I recognize that it has some fun ideas, and I've watched and enjoyed the occasional Ben Edlund-scripted episode, but I find both of the leads to be bland and unappealing, so I just can't make myself care about the show. As for Sleepy Hollow, it's silly as hell and I have little interest in its bizarre premise, but Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie are immense fun to watch, and the dialogue and character interplay are delightful even when the ideas are totally ridiculous or ill-conceived (like saying the Roanoke colonists spoke Middle English even though they were contemporaries of Shakespeare). I'm watching it for the execution even though the premise holds no appeal.
19. Nix
@JohnCBunnell I would watch a show about "Knight Rider with Demons" if it were on television.
Steven Halter
20. stevenhalter
As oraymw@16 and others have pointed out all of these elements are just part of the background of thousands of years of human culture. Just like in this sentence I am using characters that have been in use for thousands of uears and evolving from multiple sources but arranged into a different pattern for your viewing pleasure.
22. Maac
The funny thing was, I sent out messages to a bunch of my friends saying just the same thing around Episode three, but my messages were joyous and exclamatory. Along the lines of "IT'S SUPERNATURAL WITH BLACK GIRLS, Y'ALL!!"*** Because seriously, the brotherly relationship with all its ups and downs was the best, most interesting part of that show, and how often does that kind of relationship get explored with that sort of depth -- plus with monsters in!!! -- when it's sisters?

Supernatural is fun and amusing and at times borderline scary, but it's not actually the forerunner of anything. Better to say "Here are a collection of programs inhabiting the same subgenre."

Ultimately, I think all these buddy-buddy solving-things shows and stories owe their existence to Sherlock Holmes, magic or no.

Also more Jenny, please. Pleeeeeeeeeeease!

*** I am a black girl. We do NOT get to do this in media!! And certainly not as the main character! More please!!! :-) :-)
23. Maac
They could do better research with things like Chaucerian English being spoken in Tudor times, though. (Although it was beautiful to hear it spoken.)
Christopher Bennett
24. ChristopherLBennett
@23: I've seen comments from German viewers that the Middle English sounded more like German to their ears than the actual German that the show's cast spoke in earlier episodes. :D
25. DeathSentry
Ok, so seeing this entry caused me to watch the pilot.. and while I am and always will be a staunch Supernatural fan, I'm loving Sleepy Hollow big time! Great chemistry between the two lead characters.. and the diversity of characters is indeed refreshing.. gonna catch up this weekend!
James Henry
26. redraobyek
I love the Winchesters, but what SLEEPY HOLLOW has that SUPERNATURAL does not is a constant, ongoing balance of male/female perspectives and dynamics and interaction. From very early on, I found myself wishing that the Winchesters had been comprised of the two brothers and a sister in there somewhere--preferably in the middle so that Dean would have a little sister to watch out for and Sam would have an *older* sister to give him occasional advice. Things like that. As it is, the show is probably the most male-dominant show that I watch, with even female semi-regulars being a rare thing. And I think that it suffers for the lack of this mix.
27. Maac
@24 -- It was so cool. You could really hear the connection to the Scandinavian languages, too -- I'd say Swedish, especially, if I had any firm authority to say so, which I do not. :-)

(I and some colleagues have spent a lot ot time lately speculating what might have happened to the English language if the British isles had remained in the Scandinavian sphere instead of getting drawn into the French/Continental one after 1066 -- especially considering that fascinating situation we have today, where Swedes and Norwegians and Danes can, to an extent, understand each other well enough to have smooth conversations on national television without actually learning the other language. Would English be a language that could fit in that smoothly as well? If I had what it takes, I'd try writing a fantasy novel based on it...)
28. Maac
(I am not sure 1. how that comment got doubled or 2. why it took me until NOW to notice it. Sorry, all.)
29. JohnCG
@23 et. al. Middle English is extremely germanic in sound, since English is a germanic language at its base. The latinate influences came after English evolved into something we could easily understand today.

@24 Good catch of the Scandinavian influence. And not only can Scandinavians of different countries understand each other, but we English speakers can pick out a surprising amount of their languages, something I noticed as a teen when I watched a short film (between TV shows) about Death playing badminton, though I can't remember which Scandinavian language they were speaking.
Christopher Bennett
30. ChristopherLBennett
@29: Well, the Romance-language influence on English began with the Norman conquest in 1066, which is generally considered the beginning of Middle English. So logically ME should have had some Latinate influences, though given the separation of Norman nobles and Anglo-Saxon commoners it probably took some time for those influences to percolate through the language.
31. Fahrbot
"Supernatural practically invented the apocalypse plotline for television"

Sure that wasn't Buffy and Angel?

It's like attributing 'realistic physics in space' to Battlestar Galactica - everyone seems to have short memories to have forgotton Babylon 5 and stuff.
Christopher Bennett
32. ChristopherLBennett
@31: I could quibble over whether either of those had realistic physics. (B5 treated explosions in vacuum realistically at first but soon fell back into the old orange-fireball cliche.) But I've seen people credit BSG for pioneering found-footage-style shakycam space shots even though Firefly did it first.
33. brainrockets
So far, Sleepy Hallow is mostly just the new hotness. It has enough of the things I like and so far has avoided the things that drive me crazy. It defintiley scratches the itch for cheesy rompy fantastic awesome television. Does it put me in mind of my favorite shows: X-Files (dynamic duo, hello fog!), Highlander (costumes and flashbacks and swordplay, oh my!), pretty much every awesome genre show ever? YES! This show has me caring about the World Series for the first time pretty much since the last show that I loved was on Fox, in that, I can't wait for it to be over so they'll give us more episodes.
34. David B. Olsen
Actually, I'd say it's ripping off Gargoyles. Heck, they even got one of the voice actors.
Christopher Bennett
35. ChristopherLBennett
@34: "Ripping off" is too harsh, but now that you mention it, there are certain similarities between Abbie and Elisa Maza, and between Crane and Goliath (at least they're both very tall and literate as well as being out of their time). But the show lacks a Xanatos so far.

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