The first tipoff that this isn’t going to be anything like your father’s “Fantasy Island” comes early on in the vivid and unsettling pilot, when the camera follows the path of a container whooshing through a pneumatic tube, point-of-view style. It’s a small but significant moment, crystallizing the ambition of a darkly quirky hour anthology that finds exec producer Barry Sonnenfeld’s irreverent sensibility coursing through every frame, and Malcolm McDowell turning in a mind-blowing performance as a sinister and cagey Mr. Roarke.
Everything anyone remembers about ABC’s hokey original “Fantasy Island” (which ran from 1978-84), about Ricardo Montalban and his ice-cream-man suits, about little Tattoo (Herve Villechaize) yapping about “Dee plane, boss! Dee plane!” and about those cornball lessons everyone wound up learning, is forgotten. This “FI” has more of a “Twilight Zone”-“Twin Peaks”-“Northern Exposure” edge, with McDowell contributing the perfect blend of wiles and arrogance.
Gone is any trace of Tattoo, replaced by a triumvirate of sidekicks who include Cal (Louis Lombardi) and Harry (Edward Hibbert) — a couple of shmoes who appear to be working off some odd karmic debt to Roarke — and Madchen Amick (a “Peaks” alumna) as a beautiful shape-shifting morpher who becomes whatever the island visitors want her to be.
Show even pokes fun at its campy namesake predecessor at the beginning. As Cal strikes a bell dryly intoning, “The plane. The plane,” Roarke flashes him a dirty look and replies, “Quasimodo, would you mind?”
Aside from the far edgier tone, this “Fantasy Island” uses its tropical locale (Maui, Kauai and Oahu) to paint a visually dazzling portrait, with helmer Michael Dinner using the backdrop as a surreal counterpoint to the “Be careful what you ask for, you may get it” tales of caution. It pretty much apes the previous format of transporting people by plane to an island where their fantasies of romance or adventure or retribution are realized.
Opener from scribes Paul & Chris Weitz is by turns clever and creepy, interspersing a trilogy of short stories that embrace dilemmas and result in ironic comeuppance. In one, a man bored with his marriage longs to be reunited with his high school flame. A second profiles a thrill-seeker addicted to the Adrenalin rush whose recklessness leads to death and epiphany. But the most disturbing tale involves a woman who is hellbent on becoming more knowledgeable than her brainy sister.
None of the three pieces ends predictably or plays in a contrived way, though the moral resolutions of the first “Fantasy Island” continue on here. Every step of the way, McDowell’s omnipotent Roarke is cajoling, mocking, sparring and questioning with his guests, his dark suit matching his black persona. The work is nothing short of spellbinding. And in a nod to camp, “Picket Fences” refugee Fyvush Finkel and Oscar nominee Sylvia Sidney supply a deft comic touch as the geezers running the Fantasy Island travel agency.
Put it all together and you have a surprisingly compelling hour that stands with CBS’ “Buddy Faro” as the finest of this fall’s new hour entries. It remains to be seen just how far the show will go in its fantasy fulfillment agenda. We can hear Roarke now: “I’m sorry, Miss Tarses, but we can’t really do much here to improve your 18-49 numbers.”
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