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Are there Fantasy Island purists? People who think the perfection of the original ABC series is not something to be tampered with, who are going to stand outside the Fox Lot in Century City carrying signs reading, “No Tattoo? It’s Taboo!” or something?
I am not such a purist, at least not when it comes to a series I watched mostly in syndication and remember either as “Khan in a white suit messes with rich people” or “It’s Lost, but at an all-inclusive.”
Airdate: 9 p.m. Tuesday, August 10 (Fox)
Cast: Roselyn Sanchez, Kiara Barnes, John Gabriel Rodriguez
Creators: Liz Craft and Sarah Fain from the series created by Gene Levitt
The actual premise of Fantasy Island is so broad and repeatable it’s amazing that we haven’t gotten an annual attempt to reboot it, as opposed to one 1998 revival with Malcolm McDowell in the white suit and whatever the heck Blumhouse tried to do in 2020’s horror film.
I think Fox’s new Fantasy Island reboot could absolutely be better. Through four episodes it’s nonstop half-baked high-concept storytelling made with clear COVID and budgetary limitations, but you know what? It’s OK, never memorable but with potential to be watched in roughly the same way the original probably should be watched, namely checking out the episodes featuring guest stars or premises that interest you and skipping the rest with no real sense of guilt.
This update features Roselyn Sánchez as Elena Roarke, the latest in a long line of Roarke family caretakers to a tropical island capable of changing lives through fantasy experiences that range from elaborate cosplay to straight-up magic. Elena, who seems to have also inherited her ancestor’s closet of stylish white suits, does not have her own version of Hervé Villechaize’s Tattoo, because she’s perfectly capable of generating her own excitement at the regular arrival of planes, piloted by the hunky Javier (John Gabriel Rodriquez). She does have a golden retriever sidekick named Mr. Jones — woefully underutilized — and a newly introduced assistant named Ruby (Kiara Barnes), whose backstory I won’t spoil.
As Roarke explains in the first episode, “Our mission: To transform the life of every guest.” And yes, that means that this Fantasy Island is basically a network TV version of The White Lotus or Nine Perfect Strangers, but that’s a different essay!
Liz Craft and Sarah Fain, adapters of the new Fantasy Island, have kept the general structure of the original series in that nearly every episode has two primarily guest-driven storylines. If you put a little effort into excavating the themes of the two storylines, you could probably see vague and amorphous connections. But I’m not sure I saw how any of the episodes sent to critics were improved by each episode having two halfway developed plotlines as opposed to telling a single story properly.
Episodes of the original series had maybe 49 minutes of story to fill and they already felt rushed when they did dual plots. With maybe 40 minutes per episode in our new broadcast age, each of these stories felt squished into a three-act structure — introduction, complication, revelation/resolution.
Of course, the one episode that featured only a single story was probably my least favorite from this initial group. That episode focused on a young Indian-American woman getting a Sliding Doors perspective on the lives she’d live if she chose an arranged marriage versus marrying her white boyfriend. But that was because that approach seemed weird for an island as powerful as Fantasy Island.
The show is much more entertaining when the island’s approach is more playful. Take, for example, the body swap episode in which an adventurous married couple — real-life marrieds Dave and Odette Annable — each inhabit the other’s form in order to realize why they’ve lost their romantic spark. The actual things they learn from this glimpse into the world of the other gender are comically superficial, but both the Annables — Odette in particular — are having a blast with the premise, which is what Fantasy Island is supposed to be about.
The same is true of Bellamy Young, who appears in the pilot as a Phoenix-area daytime TV host whose fantasy involves eating without consequences, but becomes an oddly warped portrait of childhood trauma carried by Young’s terrifically fun performance. The strange twist at the end of Young’s episode — “Be careful watch you wish for” morals are a Fantasy Island classic — points to a problem with a few of the plots on the new show, namely life lessons that are much more complicated than Roarke or the show is really equipped to handle.
There are opportunities for provocative ideas here and the show is generally content to settle for “amusing” or, at the absolute peak, “interesting.” Generally, the show is satisfied with merely existing, which in our COVID protocol age is no small achievement. The series was shot in Puerto Rico, but not expansively or expensively shot in Puerto Rico. There are one or two white sand beaches and establishing shots of blue ocean, all interchangeable with what you’d expect from the opening credits of Love Island.
The original Fantasy Island was bustling with activity and Roarke employed a vast staff and episodes actively discussed the cost of the Fantasy Island experience. But everything on the Fox show is underpopulated, understaffed and sparse; if the guests are paying exorbitantly for this experience, it’s hard to understand why because with limited staff and an unimpressive resort environment, Elena Roarke doesn’t appear to have any overhead at all. It’s all quite basic, but in a way that probably befits a summer drama on a broadcast network in 2021.
As for the core elements? Sanchez doesn’t quite have Ricardo Montalbán’s mysterious swagger, but she has enough impeccably styled confidence to carry her part of the show. She has decent chemistry with the very likable Rodriguez, though using Fantasy Island as a platform for a will-they/won’t-they romance is not especially inspired. I liked Barnes’ introduction as Not-Tattoo, but that introduction has character-based logic that the show mostly ignores in subsequent episodes — again under the “What’s the least intriguing way we could treat an intriguing idea” mantra.
That’s basically where I ended up with the whole reboot. It’s a perfectly fine idea for TV to return to, one as easily adapted for our modern age as for the ’70s. And the execution? Shrug. It’s another show embodying franchise TV in this moment: Like Turner & Hooch on Disney+, this Fantasy Island could have been better, but that would have been far weirder than any trick Roarke could mastermind.
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