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Time-travel fantasy 'Sleepy Hollow' one of season's most successful new shows

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Television has always been a bit of a time machine. It allows viewers to look back, as in the recent coverage of the JFK assassination, and it also projects us into the future.

As a plot device, time travel is every TV writer's friend. It gets shows out of dead ends and jams, as in the infamous "Bobby in the shower" reset on "Dallas." The many incarnations of "Star Trek" boldly jumped all over the centuries.

In the wake of the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy, ABC's "The Time Tunnel" (1966-67) allowed viewers to escape or even imagine what might have happened if we could go back in time and try to fix history.

A similar plot device helped the central character jump back and forth in time in "Quantum Leap" (1989-93). That series, which starred Scott Bakula, was very much on Phillip Iscove's mind when he began dreaming up the idea that would lead to one of this season's most successful new shows, "Sleepy Hollow."

How the 31-year-old went from working at a Toronto video store to creating "Sleepy Hollow" (Mondays on Fox and Global) — the first series renewed for a second season this fall — is its own quantum leap.

Iscove was studying film and television day and night as both a Ryerson University student and a part-time employee at Bay Street Video in Toronto.

A more bracing experience was landing a job, through a family connection, at a Hollywood talent agency.

"That was my graduate degree, if you will," Iscove says on the phone from North Carolina, where "Sleepy Hollow" is shot. "It really changed the way I saw television and movies."

He entered Ryerson, "with these altruistic notions of how you're going to get yourself into that industry, and what you'll do when you get there." The agency job showed him how things really worked "from the inside out. The business experience, he feels, gave Iscove "the tools to understand why things succeed and why they don't."

Iscove took all that experience and started dreaming up his own TV project. He grew up watching "Quantum Leap" and considers it the quintessential time travel show.

"What I loved about it wasn't really the concept of all that time travel. It was really just a character piece, this nice little character study each week, and you got to play with history in the context of that."

Another big influence was "Twin Peaks" (1990-91). "It's one of the best shows that's ever been made in my opinion," he says. What he liked most was the dream-like quality of the David Lynch drama. "You could play within the sandbox of just any number of things with that show."

Iscove was stuck on how to travel his main hero through time when he happened upon "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving online. "Then I saw 'Rip Van Winkle' right underneath it and I was, like, maybe I can just put him to sleep and have it as simple as that, have a spell put on him in his time and he wakes up in 2013."

That led to a story about, as Iscove puts it, "a Twin Peaks-y town of witches and warlocks, and he pairs with a cop, and they start fighting supernatural crimes together." The hero is Irving's Ichabod Crane (played by Tom Mison), pulled 2 1/2 centuries through time only to discover he is humanity's last hope.

When Iscove got his chance to pitch the series idea to veteran showrunners Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci ("Fringe," "Star Trek: Into Darkness"), he knew enough from his agency days to avoid using the term "time travel." The pitch was mainly to do a modern-day "Sleepy Hollow," with the twist being, in Orci's words, "that he had a man out of time."

That Iscove had managed to sidestep the time travel aspect by combining the story of "Sleepy Hollow" with the spirit Rip Van Winkle — both Irving creations — is what sealed the deal for Kurtzman and Orci. "That's a really, really cool entry point," says Kurtzman.

As Iscove recalls, "about a minute and a half into the pitch, Alex Kurtzman said to me, 'I really want to do this.'"

Iscove was halfway to landing his big leap. The other half was casting. Leads Mison and Nicole Beharie, as Lt. Abbie Mills, "sell the whole thing," says Iscove. "They make you want to go on this ride and make you care about Crane and Abbie in a way that we could never have expected."

Iscove was in on the casting, along with Kurtzman, Orci and director/executive producer Len Wiseman ("Live Free or Die Hard"). "Everyone was incredibly inclusive and supportive and it's the greatest possible learning experience I could ever have asked for."

Four episodes in, Fox ordered a second season.

Iscove's not the only Canadian in the writer's room. Damian Kindler ("Sanctuary") is also involved in the series.

Might they team up someday to create a time travel series where somebody goes back to 1967 and fixes it so that the Toronto Maple Leafs keep winning Stanley Cups?

"Damian and I would be thrilled to be able to do that," says Iscove.

Call it Rip Van Riemsdyk.

———

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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