WILMINGTON, N.C. — Late one night in the woods on the outskirts of this low-key coastal town, a “burn” is being prepared.
To enact the burn – an elaborate, fiery TV stunt – a twentysomething actress, caked in black witch makeup that took six hours to layer on, is making cat-like movements on the hood of an SUV, rehearsing and scaring the actor inside in equal measure. Pipes are laid alongside a dirt path and soon begin to spew smoke.
And a fire truck sits at the ready, waiting for the moment when the cameras roll, and the witch departs the hood just before the car goes up in flames.
Then the director, the TV veteran Ken Olin, calls out an unconventional bit of counsel. “That’s a different scream,” he said, correcting the actor inside the car. “There’s a scream of terror, and there’s a scream of incineration.”
A moment later, the flames lick the sides of the vehicle, then envelop it.
The scene is fittingly colorful for the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink series that Olin and his crew are shooting, the Washington Irving-derived “Sleepy Hollow,” which debuted to big ratings Monday on Fox.
It combines, in no particular order, vampire mythology, apocalyptic action, Freemason legend, Salem witch-trial history, Revolutionary War drama, cop-procedural elements, Irving homage, “X-Files” supernaturalism, fish-out-of-water comedy and small-town mystery.
Television has been dipping into classic mythologies with shows such as HBO’s “True Blood,” NBC’s “Grimm” and ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” for the last several years. But “Sleepy Hollow” is perhaps the most extreme case yet of mash-up chic – and provides a test of whether the more-is-more school of genre TV can broaden a show’s base.
The premise, or premises: During the Revolutionary War, a young soldier fighting for the Colonies named Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) beheads an enemy combatant. Ichabod is soon put into a deep sleep, possibly though not necessarily because of a witch curse, then wakes up in the modern-day town of Sleepy Hollow, where, as it turns out, the enemy combatant has also returned as a murderous and seemingly invincible headless horseman.
After some confusion on Crane’s part that he is no longer fighting for George Washington (who may or may not be a Freemason), Crane pairs up with local detective Abbie (Nicole Beharie), who is skeptical of Crane’s claim but who, as it turns out, has a pretty fantastical personal history herself.
The two set about solving mysteries, including that of the horseman, who, oh, yes, may also be one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and the town’s witch history, of which Crane’s still-living 18th century wife may be a part.
“We like to keep things one molecule away from absurdity,” creator and executive producer Roberto Orci said with a laugh.
Or as the free-speaking Mison put it as he stepped away between takes, “In the hands of lesser writers, this show would be terrible.”
As it happens, those hands include a mix of savvy if unlikely Hollywood creators. A few of the executive producers are accomplished dramatists – show runner Mark Goffman worked for years on “The West Wing,” and Olin is best known for serious-minded drama, including acting on the 1980s adult drama “thirtysomething” and executive-producing, directing and starring in the equally upscale “Brothers & Sisters.”
There’s something of a different pedigree, however, for lead creators Orci and Alex Kurtzman, writers of big-screen blockbusters such as the “Transformers” and “Star Trek” franchises, and director and co-creator Len Wiseman, best known for directing the B-movie vampire franchise “Underworld.”
Wiseman has meticulously crafted creature designs to bring, he says, the slicker special effects of cinema to the small screen.
“I want the scenes to feel dark, but I still want you to be able to see it,” he said. “Too often on TV it’s frustrating that it just doesn’t look big or brooding enough.”
For all the aesthetic flourishes, the show also has larger themes on its mind. Though the mix of witches, secrets and torso-centric killing machines is clearly designed for maximum pulp value, creators say they want viewers to contemplate philosophical notions as well.
“The big theme of this show is that good doesn’t just fight evil; the devil can’t just walk up to you and shoot you,” Kurtzman said. “He has to make people turn on each other.”
Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has been adapted for the big and small screens numerous times, beginning with a silent film in 1922 and perhaps most notably in recent history by Tim Burton in the Johnny Depp movie “Sleepy Hollow.”
Beyond some references, though, the show would seem to have little in common with the Irving story, which was a 17-page riff on two contrasting 19th-century men fighting over a woman while the legend of the headless horseman simply hovered in the background.
But the writers say the series has deeper Irving roots than it might first appear – they wanted to create a world that would feel familiar to that of the characters of Irving’s story.
And despite the elaborate mythologies, the creators say that they ultimately believe Abbie and Crane’s personal journey is paramount.
“We want to take a true genre show that also uses real people with real emotional and psychological consequences,” said Olin, who, in addition to directing episodes, is serving as an executive producer.
“I don’t think you see that in a lot of genre shows.”
Beharie said that she also thought the show broke ground in another way: with a black female protagonist.
“When do you see that in a genre show or movie?” she said. “It’s almost never done.”
Earlier in the day, the actress (most recently seen as Rachel Robinson in the recent big-screen hit “42”) and Mison stood in a giant soundstage room tricked out with manuscripts and Gothic furniture. It’s the show’s archive, a kind of unofficial headquarters and sacred space where the two retreat to make sense of everything, even if they sometimes speak in thickly mythological terms like “the high priestess of Abaddon.”
The house’s overstuffed nature is itself a good metaphor for the show.
“Talking to people back home, I can’t really compare this to anything because there’s no one thing it’s like,” the Brit Mison said when asked how he would define the show.
Then, making sure there was one more reference point, he added: “It’s about the outsider who rides into town and tries to fix things,” he said. “So I guess I see it as a Western.”