Like many Aaron Spelling-produced series from previous decades, Fantasy Island has shown to have surprising staying power. When it premiered in 1977, the series was led by the enigmatic Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalbán) with his loyal assistant Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize), who oversaw a tropical paradise where people could temporarily live out their loftiest desires—for a price! The series was cancelled in 1984 after several Saturday night seasons, but returned to ABC for a one-season reboot in 1998 with Malcolm McDowell as Roarke, and again just last year as a poorly received Blumhouse horror movie. Now, Fox has picked up the Fantasy Island mantle.
It’s clear that showrunners Liz Craft and Sarah Fain have a firm handle on the Fantasy Island concept and all it has to offer. After all, it’s right there in the title that the show doesn’t have to be tied to reality, opening up all sorts of creative possibilities for island clients to achieve their ultimate goals. The island’s mastermind is now a woman of color: Elena (Roselyn Sánchez), a descendant of the original Mr. Roarke, as is made clear in the very first episode. Like her predecessor, Elena Roarke’s job is to steer her guests toward fantasies that may not be what they initially envisioned, but will lead them toward the answers they’re seeking.
Sometimes, those fantasies have roots in previous cinematic efforts: A struggling married couple swap bodies (“She Freaky Friday-ed us!” exclaims the wife-now-husband), and their adventure is all the more entertaining due to the fact that real-life marrieds Dave and Odette Annable play the couple. A young Indian woman is torn between the arranged marriage that her parents want and staying with her live-in boyfriend: The island offers her a chance to see both scenarios play out, Sliding Doors-style. The fantasies are occasionally tied to more ancient concepts, as an aging couple (Stephanie Berry and David Moses) finds a fountain of youth, and a grieving man (François Chau) lives a Rip Van Winkle lifestyle. But as in the original series, Roarke guides these people through these unconventional scenarios to look past their surface fantasy and discover what it really is that they’re longing for. When a TV anchor (Bellamy Young) comes to the island with the fantasy of just being able to eat everything she wants after so many years of dieting for the camera, Elena specifically selects foods from her childhood to help her discover what she’s really hungry for.
The mysteriousness of Mr. Roarke was always a hallmark of the original series; only rarely did we ever see him in a romance of his own or even lose his temper (his concerned look at one of the guests after the planes arrived, right before that first cut to commercial was canon, though). This Fantasy Island makes the wise choice to open up Elena as a character: She was chosen as a caretaker of a magical island, but where are her own personal fantasies? Elena alludes to a past broken engagement and has a cute flirtation with Javier (John Gabriel Rodriquez), the pilot who delivers the guests, so it’s clear that she is the Roarke we’ll learn the most about. Sánchez most recently starred in soapy series like Devious Maids and Grand Hotel, but she nails the key Roarke combination of control and compassion. And the way the island finds her a new Tattoo offers a welcome callback to the original, as does the abbreviated theme song, the all-white wardrobe of the hosts, and pretty much every time Elena says, “Welcome to Fantasy Island.” Like the earlier series, the appealing roster of guest stars is another Fantasy Island draw, with legendary All My Children star Debbie Morgan appearing as a diva-like mom attempting to reconnect with her daughter, and former stars of Spelling’s Melrose Place—Josie Bissett, Laura Leighton, and Daphne Zuniga—apparently on the docket.
Tropical paradise appears to be an unofficial theme of the current TV season, what with the struggling guests at The White Lotus and the spa residents in the upcoming Nine Perfect Strangers. For those of us still unable to travel to an idyllic resort, Fantasy Island also offers a vacation-by-proxy, a frothy but pleasant weekly escape with an inspired dose of whimsy. As each episode of Fantasy Island unfurls, it’s clear that the possibilities at this particular retreat are truly limitless, which makes the series a tantalizing watch just to see what the island will come up with next.