Sleepy Hollow: getting diversity right

David argues that Sleepy Hollow is ahead of its US network peers when it comes to diversity...

“What is the point of baseball? For me, baseball’s about three things. First, tradition. You can always count on the grass to be green, the lines to be white, so no matter how crazy the world gets it makes you feel safe, like everything’s okay. Second, it’s about teamwork. The players have to have faith in each other and watch each other’s backs because without that, the team won’t work. And what I love is that this sport does not discriminate. You can be a short long reliever, a long short stop, Black, white, Hispanic… and that is the American Dream.” 

Abbie Mills, The Sin Eater, Sleepy Hollow.

When Abbie Mills formally introduces herself to Ichabod Crane in the Sleepy Hollow pilot, Crane assumes that Abbie has been emancipated from slavery and relays that he supported such before it was even suggested at a long-past New York Assembly. 2013’s favourite man from another time walks quite the tightrope of offensiveness there – and yet ironically this exchange ushers in one of the most forward examples of diversity on genre TV this year. 

What separates Sleepy Hollow from other shows? It doesn’t completely disavow the ethnic backgrounds of characters played by people of colour – and not in the Seth McFarlane way, where without different backgrounds and the general existence of women there would be no one to say ‘Ha ha, you’re ______’ about, thus eliminating a good percentage of the show’s comedic material. No, via a ‘diversity is good for business’ model that Fox has for younger demographics, the creators of Sleepy Hollow have managed a level of thoughtfulness about a character not being white that was heretofore avoided in catering to mainstream audiences.

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 It’s been pointed out as a strength in comedies like The Cosby Show and Chef that the race of the characters never really affected their lives. These shows strove to show black characters as people just living life, as opposed to being a punch line or defined entirely as a put-upon minority. While one can understand the approach, it shouldn’t be mutually exclusive that one can be a three-dimensional character who happens to be non-white and occasionally, as occurs in the real world, have that affect one’s life. 

One school of thought on diversity (and one I certainly agree with), is that actors and actresses of colour should be able to play any character considered a typical guy or woman with little acknowledgment of any difference their ethnicity is arbitrarily supposed to add up to. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) from the entertaining Elementary is a rare example of an Asian-American woman playing a lead whose sensibilities have nothing to do with that supposed ‘difference’. More often, people of colour are cast as supporting characters in this vein, see Lane Kim (Keiko Agena) in Gilmore Girls; Mac (Daniel Kaluuya) in The Fades; Leena (Genelle Williams) in Warehouse 13; or Astrid (Madeleine Mantock) in The Tomorrow People.  

That point isn’t meant to take away from the depth that the performers and the writers behind their characters’ storylines can mine. Lane Kim had seven seasons of development, and over the course of just six episodes of The Fades, Mac often surpassed protagonist Paul as the engaging hook into writer Jack Thorne’s world. Neither Lane nor Mac were ever treated as different for their ethnicity; Lane specifically wanted to be a rocker and not the conservative stiff her rarely seen Korean-American parents wanted her to be. There’s certainly merit in broadening the all-too narrow range of representation in TV drama – how much has television’s ever-churning conveyor belt of Kirks and the occasional Buffy affected the way young people see themselves and others? Compare a character like Leena on Warehouse 13 to such protagonists.

 Warehouse 13‘s Genelle Williams had much more to offer the series than being the innkeeper in the background. But with a backstory explored less than the unknowable Mrs Frederic – and with no storyline that she was integral in up until her death – the character was simply underserved. Her appearance was in the vein of diversity that TV casting directors like so much: racially ambiguous enough to stand out as diversity while still being palatable to normative standards of ‘beauty’. Williams’ character was incredibly supportive of the Warehouse 13 organization throughout her run on the show, but she had nothing close to the storylines that warehouse additions like Claudia and Jinks were given. It seems like she’ll be the one character among the protagonists who died and won’t be resurrected. I hope Williams’ role in the upcoming Syfy series Bitten is one that’s at least as fleshed out as a Watson, Lane or a Mac.   

There’s an element of this kind of supporting character to Sally Malik (Meaghan Rath) from the American version of Being Human – with the notable difference being that the show is, like Elementary, a series with more than one lead. Sally certainly has depth. But the casting of the character seems very much built on the success of Lenora Crichlow (who is biracial) as Annie Sawyer. Let me say that I like both iterations of Being Human and the characters as they were cast. I appreciate that someone like Sally is on TV. But the character seems like she was sketched to function both as your average character and a form of diversity never mindful of being different. Having your cake and eating it, too, perhaps. A clear example of this is when Erin Shepard (Lydia Doesburg), season three’s teen wolf, makes a pointed joke to the effect of ‘Sally Whatever-ethnic-last-name.’ The lack of political correctness isn’t the problem – any kind of diversity with depth will address the way people’s attitudes are flawed – but Sally, who has a comeback for most slights, didn’t see that as one. Is the character’s last name just supposed to be an odd flourish?

This brings me back to Sleepy Hollow, a show where Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) isn’t just a kick-ass lead but is also able to voice her love of baseball as a great equalizer (see the quote above). Mills’ ex-boyfriend on the show is played by a Hispanic-American actor (Nicholas Gonzalez), and what makes this particularly singular is that most person-of-colour leads on mainstream shows are written to only have white love interests. (See Ugly Betty,The Mindy Project, Luther, The Middleman).

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 There’s also some awareness of the reality that Ichabod Crane comes from, not undercut by the fact that it’s a fantasy world. In episode seven (Midnight Ride), after Orlando Jones’ Captain Frank Irving knows that Ichabod really is from colonial times, he can’t resist informing him about Sally Hemmings and the DNA evidence of the children that Jefferson fathered with this woman who was enslaved by him – though in that same episode, Abbie as scripted by Mark Goffman and Alex Kurtzman may give Jefferson a wee bit more credit than many women would when she suggests that perhaps Sally Hemmings inspired Thomas Jefferson with notions of equality that made it into The Declaration of Independence.  

Sleepy Hollow is a show that’s trying, and succeeding here and there, in ways that haven’t been done before. The CW’s Arrow is a slightly more tepid example, but also a notable one. Episode two of the second season features a meta exchange between Oliver Queen, Felicity Smoak and John Diggle.

With Oliver now acting as CEO of Queen Industries, in addition to trying to be a non-lethal version of the archer, he asks Felicity to work as his secretary for the sake of those things coalescing. As Diggle coolly stands by, Felicity tells Oliver she doesn’t want any part of this ‘secretary’ business. “Well, it could be worse,” Diggle tells her. “My secret identity is his black driver.”

Diggle has a self-defence background that is only undercut by someone like Oliver, who had to spend the better part of five years surviving up against mercenaries and creations like the League of Assassins. I don’t always think it’s fair to the character that he’s not up to that par. But Oliver is constantly challenged by both Diggle and Felicity, and there’s an awareness on his part that he’s a better man for it – and maybe that it’s not entirely fair to both of them that they always have his back. When Diggle’s ex-wife is being held captive in a Russian prison (season two episode Keep Your Enemies Closer), Oliver makes helping him a priority in a way that he hasn’t before.

 With Felicity and Diggle, Arrow has at least exceeded expectations of those who tuned in for its first episode.

Ultimately, the context of diversity is vital to understanding what it really adds up to. Is it just there because someone would complain because it wasn’t? That kind of diversity – coming to Saturday Night Live this year after complaints that the show had no black female cast members, and having appeared in Girls after similar complaints – may be a stepping stone to something really positive, but if the infrastructure behind it retains the same one-sided sensibilities that led to its absence – well, beyond appearances, what’s so diverse about a checked box? 

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A great show like Community can have a three-dimensional conservative woman like Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) on one hand and a constantly devolving whirlwind of stereotypes like Chang (Ken Jeong) on the other. (Come on, Harmon!) Most diversity as written by your average TV writing staff, even at its best, is a reflection of a limited sense of what it’s like to be both normal and different – but at least it’s becoming important to have it in the mix with the stories we look to for escapism and, more occasionally within that escapism, an exploration of everybody’s human condition.

David blogs at Read more about Sleepy Hollow on Den of Geek, here.

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