Judge Cynthia Boris' fantasy: 24 hours of classic TV stars playing roles they aren't generally known for. Welcome to my Fantasy Island!
Our review of Fantasy Island: The Complete Second Season, published May 16th, 2012, is also available.
"De plane! De plane!"—Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize)
What if, for two days, you could be anything you wanted? Be anywhere, any time you wanted. Live an experience you've never had, or relive an experience with a chance to do it different. What would you do? What would you be? A rock star? President? Travel with Billy the Kid or rescue a damsel from a dragon? Would you jump out of a plane? Paint a work of art—or just plain fall in love? Welcome to Fantasy Island, where your dreams come true…sort of.
Facts of the Case
Fantasy Island is part of the "Guest Stars in Alphabetical Order" genre of television along with shows like The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote. It guest stars an incredible mix of TV favorites (Bill Bixby), classic film stars (Peter Lawford), and beloved character actors (Henry Jones), not to mention up-and-coming starlets (Victoria Principal) and soap opera hunks (Dack Rambo). The series was developed by bona fide TV geniuses Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg (Charlie's Angels, Starsky & Hutch, Hart to Hart) out of an idea that came to them during a particularly boring meeting with ABC. The premise was, literally, "the stuff dreams are made of." Each week, two people are given a chance to live out their fantasy (no this isn't reality TV and no, this isn't porn). They pay $50,000 (except in special cases where their fantasy is free), and the mysterious Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) and his mini-me manservant, Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize), provide the rest.
Though Roarke's base of operations is a lush tropical island only reachable by seaplane, the fantasy can take place anywhere and in any time (for example, London during WWII, the old west, a childhood home, or a Southern plantation). But at no time does anyone's fantasy turn out exactly as they expected—and therein lays the joy of the series.
• "Fantasy Island Pilot"
• "Return to Fantasy Island"
• "Escape/Cinderella Girls"
• "Bet a Million/Mr. Irresistible"
• "The Prince/The Sheriff"
• "Family Reunion/Voodoo"
• "Lady of the Evening/The Racer"
• "Treasure Hunt/Beauty Contest"
• "The Funny Girl/Butch and Sundance"
• "Trouble, My Lovely/The Common Man"
• "The Over-the-Hill Caper/Poof, You're a Movie
• "King for a Day/Instant Family"
• "Fool for a Client/Double Your Pleasure"
• "Call Me Lucky/Torch Song"
You're going to think I'm crazy when I say this, but I don't remember Fantasy Island being this dark. Seriously. I'm not kidding here. I remember Barbi Benton bouncing and smiling, Dennis Cole stealing hearts—lots of love and fun and silly quips between Roarke and Tattoo. Well, I'm here to tell you that it may have ended up that way, but that's not how it all started. The original Fantasy Island (as seen in the pilot and follow-up movie, Return to Fantasy Island) is a rather morose commentary on the human condition. There's blackmail, kidnapping, funerals, guns, bombs, and murder. Yeah, I'm talking about Fantasy Island. The charming, conciliatory Mr. Roarke of the later episodes is more of master manipulator (oh-so Lucifer-like) in the early installments of this series, and Montalban carries it off with great panache.
Sadly, though, this Twilight Zone-esque storytelling style was guillotined when the show was retooled as a regular series. The show took on the lighter tone that most people are familiar with: typical "grass is always greener" plots, along with parables about the majority of the seven deadly sins (greed and pride at the top of the heap).
Unlike the two pilot movies, the series gives us two stories per episode. There is a certain comfort level in the weekly set-up. Tattoo announces the plane's arrival. He and Roarke banter a moment, then they take to the boat dock to greet their guests. As each of the familiar (to any baby boomer who has sat through more than his share of TV) faces steps off the plane, Roarke gives Tattoo (and the audience) the Reader's Digest-condensed version of each person's fantasy, and their relation to the people who arrived with them. He also leaves us with a bit of a tease, hinting that the fantasies won't come out quite the way people planned. Tropical drinks are served by tropical women wearing tropical flowers, and Roarke raises his glass in toast. "Welcome to Fantasy Island!"—and we're off to the races again.
The quality of the episodes varies greatly with the quality of the talent cast in the roles. "Fantasy" Island or not, I can't buy TV game show panelist Bert Convy as man with the fortitude to escape Devil's Island. On the other hand, Ray Bolger and Foster Brooks make excellent aging mobsters. And where else can you find (except perhaps on the Love Boat) such a wondrous collection of classic Hollywood stars, who all still glimmer and shine: Howard Duff, Jane Powell, Majorie Lord, and Theodore Bikel. And if it's TV stars you want, Fantasy Island is like retirement village for supporting TV actors. You may not recognize their names, but you'll know their faces: Guy Stockwell, Mabel King, (the incomparable) Henry Jones, Jack Ging, Henry Beckman, Peter Mark Richmond, and Milton Selzer (and if you can picture any two of those you win a tropical fruity drink on me!).
On the production side, the series is nicely photographed, with liberal use of footage shot in Hawaii—its fine sand beaches, a busy ocean, and miles of tropical foliage to set the scene. Since the show takes place in a variety of locales, kudos go to the set designers, prop men, and wardrobe mistresses who had to create two entirely different shows each week. The details are there and they're well appreciated.
The show also benefits from solid directing by some of the most stalwart TV directors of the time, including George McCowan, Earl Bellamy, and Phil Bondelli. And even though each episode dealt with two distinct stories, duties were generally handled by only one director. This may account for the even balance between them that the episodes manage to achieve.
This box set comes with a set of "promos," which are actually the coming attraction tags from the end of about half of the episodes: A nice little perk, but nothing to write home about. The two featurettes, however, are a welcome addition. I'm used to Universal Studios' stripped down DVDs, so it's refreshing to see even small extras like these on classic TV show sets.
"Creating the Fantasy" is a short series of interviews with executive producer Leonard Goldberg, director Cliff Bole, and writer Ron Friedman. Between them, they give a nice picture of how the concept came about, how it was cast, and the difficulties of producing a weekly anthology series. Some great insight here and plenty of, "hey, I didn't know that!" moments.
"Spending the Day at Fantasy Island" is dedicated to the actors who were guests on Fantasy Island. Ken Berry, Joseph Campanella, and Adrienne Barbeau speak about their time on the series. They say nothing terribly startling, but it is nice to hear warm memories recounted and to hear how excited they were to work with such an amazing range of actors.
This four-DVD set comes in two plastic cases inside a cardboard sleeve. Sony was kind enough to give us three different sharp color photos on the packaging. Even more fun is the backside of the case insert, which is a lush tropical island scene reminiscent of those paper murals people put on their living room walls in the sixties. The tropical scene shows through the translucent case, providing a sweet backdrop for the discs themselves. The discs, however, have these odd, almost 3-D photographs that are actually sort of creepy. The picture on Disc Three makes me want to say, "thank you, Thing." The menu is easily navigated with a light-up tropical flower as your pointer. The menu graphics are first year Photoshop—likely done by the same person who made the scary shots for the discs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Every cloud has a silver lining, and even Fantasy Island has a trash dump around back of the house. In this case, it's the production of the DVD that is drawing flies. The pilot movies suffer considerably from poor video quality, though the episodes also have their fair share of nicks and scratches. The stock footage is grainy and some spots are so bright they seem over exposed. But the video quality is nothing to complain about when held in comparison to the sound quality. The voices (even the wonderful dulcet tones of Howard Duff) come out muffled and muted, forcing the listener to turn up the sound nearly full blast. The downside is that the extraneous sound effects come through loud and clear, often overriding the dialogue (and scaring the heck out of the viewer who has the sound turned way up). Ocean waves sound like they're coming from the backyard, and after the gun shots in the pilot episode I found myself searching for bullet holes in the couch! I don't know how these things are done, but it makes me wonder if the sound effects and dialogue are on separate audio tracks. If only there was a way to turn down one and raise up the other.
Leaving the DVD manufacturing behind, there is one other downside to Fantasy Island and that is the dated, often sexist point of view that is found in episode after episode.
"All women are beautiful, just sometimes you have to look a little harder," says Roarke when referring to the perfectly darling Diana Canova. And when George Maharis (the working stiff) wants to woo Adrienne Barbeau (the powerful boss), his fantasy is delivered with no thought for her feelings. When she objects, Roarke arranges to have her kidnapped, fondled, and threatened with rape just so Maharis can rescue her from her fix. In the new millennium, Barbeau would knock the bastard out cold and save herself, but in the seventies, she has no choice but to fall in love with the man who got her into the mess in the first place.
When it comes right down to it, you have to give Fantasy Island credit for pulling off something that has never worked well on television—the anthology series. With up to ten guest stars in every episode, you're bound to spot at least a few of your favorite '70s TV actors, or even some you remember from the big screen. The stories are charming, character-driven pieces with a lesson to be learned. Most of all, Fantasy Island is heartwarming, though not in a Walton's kind of way. It clearly defines the old adage "be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it."
I hereby find Fantasy Island guilty—a guilty pleasure that is. Smiles, everyone! Smiles!
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: "Creating the Fantasy"
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