Fantasy Island 2021 TV Series Review
Fox’s new version of Fantasy Island isn’t the show’s first reboot attempt. In 1998, ABC brought back the show with Malcom McDowell playing Mr. Roarke, and leaned on the darker, more supernatural elements that were always at play on the island, but just never the main source of storytelling. A 2020 film version was a pure slasher flick. But this version hews much closer to the original, and thanks to a fine lead performance from Roselyn Sanchez, it more than reminds us of Aaron Spelling’s hit from the 1970s.
Opening Shot: A woman is on her exercise bike at 4 in the morning, when she gets a call from her agent that she didn’t get the job in New York she was going for; they apparently wanted to go younger.
The Gist: As this woman, a Phoenix morning show anchor named Christine Collins (Bellamy Young) starts to lose it, she gets on set and starts her show with a rant about how tough it is to maintain her looks and weight for the TV news business. Her co-anchor interrupts her by saying “Somebody needs a vacation!”
We then are introduced to Elena Roarke (Roselyn Sanchez), who runs Fantasy Island, just like her great uncle (Ricardo Montalbán’s Mr. Roarke) did back in the day; the island has been in her family for generations. At the resort, Roarke is there to help people fulfill even their most outlandish fantasies, even if doing so shows them something that they may not want to see.
Christine shows up on the plane, piloted by Javier (John Gabriel Rodriquez), Roarke’s closest confidant with whom she’s had a past. Her fantasy is a simple one: She just wants to eat anything she wants and not gain an ounce. Of course, Roarke grants her that wish, and we see Christine surrounded by all of the food she restricts herself from eating and she lustily feasts on it.
But Roarke knows there is something behind Christine’s obsession with her weight, and it’s not just because of her job. Roarke transports Christine back to 1984, when she was a buck-toothed teenager named Crystal who lived in a trailer park; her mother died shortly after marrying a man named Landon (Rick Holmes), whose cruelty knew no bounds.
Two other visitors, Ruby Akuda (Stephanie Berry) and her husband Mel (David Moses), married for 50 years, come to the island; Ruby is dying of pancreatic cancer, and she just wants to feel young and healthy for a few days. Roarke gives them a map which sends them to a waterfall; they walk through it and they’re both in young bodies again (their minds still have the life experience of their older selves). While young Mel (Adain Bradley) just can’t take his eyes of young Ruby (Kiara Barnes), Ruby starts exploring who she’s attracted to and her own interests, something she never did as she took care of her kids and grandkids.
Roarke, who can usually keep an emotional distance from her guests, talks to Javier about Ruby; she’s just very sad about the fact that she doesn’t have much longer to live. But after Ruby gets a tattoo during a party, and expressing her love for Mel despite what he’s seen and their history, Roarke calls them to her office and offers her a way to live a new life… as long as she stays on the island.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? This version of Fantasy Island definitely is closer to the original 1977-84 version than the darker, Barry Sonnenfeld-directed version in 1998 that starred Malcolm McDowell as Mr. Roarke. And it’s certainly nothing like last year’s Fantasy Island horror flick.
Our Take: What we appreciated about this iteration of Fantasy Island, where Liz Craft and Sarah Fain serve as the showrunners, is that it stays pretty loyal to the format of the original series while updating the feel to something that resembles a show from the 21st century, from the soundtrack to the regular cast.
Of course, the biggest change is Sanchez as Ms. Roarke, and she does a good job of honoring Montalbán’s original Roarke and making it her own. Yes, she has a similar accent. Yes, she wears white suits like her uncle did — though hers are much more fashionable. She;s a little more rooted to reality than her uncle was, and certainly not as grandiose. But her role is basically the same as her uncle’s was; to fulfill her guests’ fantasies, but to also show them that getting what they want isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
Of the two stories, the one with Ruby and Mel was the more touching, but that makes sense, since this is our introduction to Ruby as Roarke’s new assistant. Barnes certainly will bring some young energy to the show, and as she gets more comfortable on the island, she should settle into being Ruby. We certainly hope that we get to know her better, and see her miss Mel as well as explore her new freedoms. Just making her the new version of Hervé Villechaize’s Tattoo without pushing into her backstory somewhat doesn’t quite cut it in 2021.
Bellamy Young’s story, on the other hand, was half-baked at best. While at first it seems that this is just a character with an eating disorder, a topic that needs to be treated with a bit more sensitivity than it is in Young’s first few scenes, we start to get where the story is going when Roarke gets Christine to examine her relationship with her verbally abusive stepfather. But that story doesn’t push far enough. Was he more than verbally abusive? What was the tipping point for Christine? We see too many scenes of Christine eating and not enough of her backstory to get a real handle on her character, something that someone of Young’s abilities deserved to play out.
But this version of Fantasy Island isn’t trying to be spooky, like the ’90s version was, or violent, like last year’s movie was. It’s more or less the Fantasy Island of old, but with some modernized elements (though, to be honest, we miss the topless Plymouth Volare station wagon Roarke used to drive around the island).