If you’re curious why Fox would resurrect a nearly 50-year-old television property like Fantasy Island, ask yourself — what was the last truly original TV show you watched? Twin Peaks? Which was, what, 30 years ago? Most everything we've ever enjoyed on televison was based on a formula established by an already successful show, which was itself patterned on some show that we’ve all forgotten. Think about how you watch TV now. Do you really want something “new,” or something that reminds you of Top Chef or To All the Boys or Black Mirror or some other favorite of yours?
Part of the problem with this question — why reboot or (to quote Fox PR) “re-imagine” Fantasy Island — is that this isn’t really a reboot or revival of Fantasy Island. It’s something a little different, and knowing this can help us look at all of TV differently, not just this show. Fantasy Island is not a show so much as it is a format — a collection of intellectual assets that can be sold and adapted across platforms and countries.
In 1970s America, Norman Lear made his name off other people’s formats. He went to England and bought Steptoe and Son and Till Death Do We Part, which he turned into Sanford and Son and All in the Family. More recently, he helped transform his own 70s era One Day at a Time format into a modern day portrait of a Latino family for Netflix and later, Pop TV. But Lear is a piker compared to Aaron Spelling. The late superproducer built a fortune and a tragically oversized Beverly Hills mansion on formats like Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, Dynasty and Charmed, which all got made in second and even third iterations. Charlie’s Angels even became a successful film franchise.
And now Spelling’s Fantasy Island format is getting another spin on network TV, thanks to show creators Liz Craft and Sarah Fain, the dynamic duo from Kansas City. They’ve replaced Montalban’s smooth, manly, mysterious Roarke with an equally suave and mysterious Elena Roarke (Roselyn Sanchez). And instead of a short actor like Herve Villechaize playing Roarke's assistant Tattoo, the part is being played by someone with a tattoo, whose identity is revealed in the pilot. But basically it’s the original recipe: Guest stars arrive each week with a fantasy, Roarke summons the hocus-pocus-dominocus and gives them what they think they want. But this inevitably leads to unintended consequences, which reveal uncomfortable truths and that currency that 1970s shows traded so freely in … lessons learned.
Fantasy Island used magical realism the way the Harry Potter books use a mirror — to force the island’s guests to look deeply and penetratingly at their own reflections. When I dial up an old Fantasy Island today, however, it’s more like watching a Love Boat rerun. Montalban was always great with those pipes of his, but by Season 5 the writers were churning out hokey scripts like this episode that recycles Marnie and “The Most Dangerous Game” (for extra literalism, actual game show host Gene Rayburn was a guest star).
The new Fox version of Fantasy Island is slick and confident in its pacing. The magical realism feels stronger here, but that might just be the fact that we live in the 21st century, where magical realism permeates everything from Atlanta to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Craft and Fain made their bones in the Joss Whedon system, so they know this landscape well. Also, whereas Mr. Roarke and the original Tattoo were mostly narrators of other people’s fantasies, Ms. Roarke and her new Tattoo have been given backstories that the show will explore as well.
But the most significant change here is that, unlike a ’70s TV show, this version doesn’t have to pull in tens of millions of viewers. That imperative from the old days led to the rule of “least objectionable content.” This version of Fantasy Island is aimed at a grown-up audience, ladies mostly. The storylines are darker, sexier. They also arc across episodes — I recommend watching at least the first two to get the full flavor. Also, Episode 2 is stronger, with the loss of intimacy explored through both comic and poignant storylines.
It’s a network show, so don’t expect The Leftovers. But Fantasy Island is back and it’s in good hands.
Fantasy Island premieres on FOX August 10 at 9:00 PM ET. All seasons of the original 1977 series and the 1998 remake are streaming on the free-streaming platform Tubi.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.