In what may be interpreted by some as a sign of the impending apocalypse, the old-school syndicated series "Fantasy Island" has been re-invented for the Nineties. Riding the wave of nostalgia that has seen a similar re-launch of sister series "The Love Boat", executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld (director of "Men in Black") has put a fresh and decidedly darker twist on the sometimes-tolerable-yet-usually-cheesy anthology series that ran for six years between 1978 and 1984. At its best, the original "Fantasy Island" did have some interesting and poignant examinations of the life's complications, such as a favorite episode of mine that had a pregnant woman, certain to die giving birth, seeing the disheartening future in store for her unborn daughter. But at its worst, "Fantasy Island" was an endless parade of washed-up TV stars engaged in cloying and annoying epiphany sessions.
But that was then, and this is now. The new "Fantasy Island" has a much darker and sinister atmosphere. In the pilot episode, which aired on the 26th, much of the old baggage from the previous incarnation was jettisoned quickly and shrewdly. Gone are the white suits, the Hawaiian dancers, and the generally cheery atmosphere. The new "Fantasy Island" seems more like the Devil's playground.
Mr. Roarke (Malcolm McDowell of "Star Trek: Generations") is now a creepy and pernicious figure dressed in black, brimming with arrogance and supernatural powers-- interestingly enough, in the original series, Roddy McDowall played the Devil and was dressed in black too. And instead of being followed around by Tattoo (Herve Villechaize), the new Mr. Roarke has three charges: Cal (Edward Hibbert) the hotel concierge, Harry (Louis Lombardi) the bellhop, and Ariel (Madchen Amick of "Twin Peaks"), a shape-shifting woman who can become anything the island's patrons desire. However, unlike the affable relationship between the old Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) and Tattoo, the relationship between the new Mr. Roarke and his employees is more of indentured servitude-- they are all working off some unspecified debt.
The pilot episode begins interestingly enough with Matthew Ashby (John Mese) ducking into a travel agency to escape a rainstorm. However, he soon quickly discovers the Fantasy Island Travel Agency is more like one of those mystical shops from the Twilight Zone that sell everything your heart desires. The old fogeys that run the agency ("Picket Fences" alumni Fyvush Finkel and Sylvia Sidney) seem to know everything about Matthew, including his marital troubles. After acknowledging that he feels as if he married the wrong woman, and that everything would be for the better had he married someone else, Matthew finds himself booked on a vacation at Fantasy Island.
The action on the island begins cheekily enough with Mr. Roarke deciding to burn all his white suits. While heading out to meet the incoming plane, Mr. Roarke spots Cal ringing the bell and declaring "The plane.... the plane." Without skipping a beat, Mr. Roarke humorlessly retorts "Quasimodo... do you mind?" In addition to Matthew Ashby, Mr. Roarke and his charges meet the other guests for the episode: an insatiable action-freak who seeks the most death-defying and extreme adventure (Paul Hipp), and a young lawyer (Marley Shelton) who wants 'to know everything' so that she can outsmart her sister (Lisa Robin Kelly) at "Jeopardy". However, before sending the vacationers on their way to having their dreams realized, Mr. Roarke ominously warns them never to tell others of their experiences while on the island. And then the fun begins. Building on the adage 'be careful what you wish for', these vacationers find that their fantasies of romance, fulfillment, or comeuppance have ironic outcomes, and they wind up learning more from their experiences than they bargained for.
This new and improved "Fantasy Island" seems to be a winner all-around. In addition to the dire tone, being on Fantasy Island is a much more surrealistic experience (thanks to extensive use of special effects) than it was two decades ago. For example, when Matthew Ashby orders a drink at a bar and reflects on his 'missed opportunity', he finds himself transported from the beach to a nightclub circa 1985. Watching himself make what he considers the greatest mistake in his life, Matthew is then brought back into reality by Mr. Roarke-- an effect that is seamless and mystical. Another instance in the sibling rivalry story thread has the two sisters winding up on the real-life set of "Jeopardy". However, instead of Alex Trebek providing the answers, it is Mr. Roarke. Furthermore, the moral resolutions in the story threads are certainly less hackneyed than in the old series, which hopefully is representative of a greater emphasis on the writing in this outing.
The pilot episode of the new "Fantasy Island" is certainly off to a good start. I can envision many possibilities for this fledgling series that will allow it to extend beyond the trappings of the 'vacationer-of-the-week'. Further exploration into the background of Mr. Roarke's dark personality, the basis of the relationship between Mr. Roarke and his employees, and the shady pasts of those employees are excellent fodder for exploration on future episodes. Heck, how about a crossover episode with the new Love Boat docking at Fantasy Island? Or the old Mr. Roarke making an appearance to battle the new Mr. Roarke for control of Fantasy Island? Definitely something to tune into.