These Two New TV Dramas Are So Silly They Get Away With Being Serious About Race

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Nov. 18 2013 7:00 AM

Almost Human and Sleepy Hollow

Two new Fox dramas are silly enough to be serious about race.

Almost Human, Sleepy Hollow
L: Almost Human. R: Sleepy Hollow.

Photos courtesy FOX

Fox’s Monday night is suddenly home to not one but two time-shifting, multiracial buddy cop shows, not previously a particularly robust micro-genre. Sleepy Hollow, one of the hits of the fall season, premiered in September and follows sheriff Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), who’s attempting to avert the apocalypse with the help of Ichabod Crane. Yes, the Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), an Oxford-educated scholar turned American revolutionary, resurrected in present-day Westchester.* Almost Human, premiering this week, is set in a future where all police officers must partner with androids, and grizzled, robot-hating cop John Kennex (Karl Urban) must learn to work with an AI named Dorian (Michael Ealy), an android with a soul. The shows are both preposterous, but openly, willingly, unapologetically so, leaning into genre conventions instead of away from them. Their embrace of their own silliness gives them leeway to do something decidedly un-silly: explore race, often with a light touch.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

Sleepy Hollow has updated Washington Irving’s tale by injecting it with a streak of cheeky evangelism. The headless horseman is no longer just an ax-wielding death dealer with about a foot taken off the top, but one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Crane and Mills, with more humility than this suggests, believe themselves to be a pair foreseen in the book of Revelations:  “Two witnesses” destined to participate in a “war for the soul of mankind” for “seven years of tribulation, according to scripture” (and also the syndication department).

Unlike The X-Files, with which Sleepy Hollow shares both a freak-of-the-week structure and a male-female duo ordained by the god of television to kiss one day, neither of the leads are skeptics. Though Mills has some of Scully’s no-nonsense coolness, she believes not in science, but in her eyes—which, before the first episode was over, saw a headless man on a horse decapitate a few townsfolk. She buys chivalrous, handsome Ichabod’s biblical insights. Without much discussion of God or Christianity and certainly without alienating any blue-staters, Sleepy Hollow is telling a story that Kirk Cameron might be comfortable appearing in, in which God-fearing and righteous Christians prophesied by the Bible stave off the apocalypse. On The X-Files, the truth was out there. On Sleepy Hollow, it’s just the devil outside.

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Beharie, a Juilliard-trained actresses who previously appeared in Shame, is some kind of fantastic—a spitballer whose line deliveries spin and curve and juke in unexpected ways. She and Mison have a warm, loopy chemistry, that’s far livelier than the series’ supernatural bogeymen. In last week’s episode, for no particular reason, Ichabod made extended slurping noises with a straw that had Abbie giggling in delight, a beat both inexplicable and essential. After all, buddy-cop stories only work if you want to watch the buddies be buddies, even if, in this case, you want them to be buddies in a horizontal fashion. (For now, Crane has a wife: a good witch stuck in purgatory for the last 200 years, who will surely one day grant him a hall pass.)

Crane, notably, worked through his racism back in the 18th century. A recent episode showed flashbacks in which Ichabod, still a member of the British army, interrogated and tortured a free black man, before realizing the enormity of his error, trying to help him, and becoming a devout abolitionist. With Crane’s essential values established, however heavy-handedly, the show has some fun. A man from the 1770s can ask things that would be unacceptable for a contemporary to ask, just as a series with a genuinely diverse cast can touch on themes whiter shows can’t. When Ichabod first meets Abbie, he says she must be “freed,” a remark that earns him a look so pointed, it’s a wonder it doesn’t put his eye out. In a more recent episode, Mills’ boss, Captain Irving (Orlando Jones), asks Crane how he’s supposed to reconcile Thomas Jefferson the great man with Thomas Jefferson the slave owner, a conversation that gives Mills and Irving the twisted pleasure of teaching Ichabod Crane, staunch Jefferson defender, about Sally Hemings.

If Sleepy Hollow openly plays with race, Almost Human deals with it an allegorical capacity. The show is set in 2048, in a slightly dystopic future you will recognize from The Matrix, Total Recall, Blade Runner, and so on, where the highly accomplished bad guys are called the Syndicate and black-market Asian doctors illegally help people recover lost memories. John Kennex is a cop who once led his team into an ambush that left him in a coma for two years, leaving him with a synthetic leg and a deep hatred of all androids. His distaste is such that when he finally returns to the force—while tossing back tiny red pills that don’t seem to be working yet—he throws his android partner out of a moving car and under the wheels of an oncoming truck.

Kennex’s boss (Lili Taylor) next pairs him with a different kind of android, the DRN model, which run a program called “synthetic soul” and have been decommissioned for being too human. Dorian, as this particular DRN is known, becomes Kennex’s partner and is as calm, even-tempered, and insistent on his essential humanity as Kennex is grouchy, close-minded, and disdainful of it. Kennex keeps referring to Dorian as a “synthetic,” which is a slur. “I’m not a huge fan of the term,” Dorian says, pushing Kennex to take a baby step away from his prejudicial belief that all androids are subhuman.

Kennex is a bigot, and though his disdain for androids is a metaphor for racism, within the show he’s not racist, just androidist (or whatever the apt -ism is). He doesn’t dislike Dorian because he’s black, but because DRNs are machines. To make this clear, Kennex’s beloved ex-girlfriend, who disappeared during his coma, is also African-American. In other words, Almost Human is an allegory about our contemporary racial issues set in a post-racial future.

I’ve only seen one episode of Almost Human; it’s possible the show will get more racially explicit. Maybe other characters will be more open-minded than Kennex about robots, but less so about African-Americans. Maybe if the DRNs were white they wouldn’t have been discontinued for volatility. But the pilot, like Sleepy Hollow, is an unabashedly straightforward piece of entertainment that subtly sneaks some headier themes in with all the schlock. If Fox ever expands into the 10 p.m. hour, there’s a show just waiting to be paired with Sleepy Hollow and Almost Human: a racially diverse buddy cop drama, set right now, without the past or the future to hide behind.

Correction, Nov. 18, 2013: This article originally misspelled Tom Mison's last name. (Return.) Correction, Nov. 19, 2013: This article originally misstated that Nicole Beharie is the second African-American woman, after Kerry Washington, to topline a network drama since the mid-'70s. Meagan Goode toplined NBC's short-lived drama Deception in early 2013. Additionally, though Beharie is a co-lead, she receives second billing. The sentence has been removed.

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