A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
I couldn’t even begin to calculate how many hours of my life I’ve spent thinking about Fantasy Island. Back in elementary school, during those endless afternoons when I was supposed to be filling out some mimeographed worksheet, I’d often be staring out the window, past the monkey-bars, and picturing a seaplane flying off to paradise. And then I’d try to figure out how the whole business worked. How could Mr. Roarke possibly afford to pay his staff? Were all those people lounging by the pool in the background having fantasies too, or was it possible just to go to Fantasy Island and have a normal resort vacation? If a client pays for a fantasy involving sexual intercourse, wouldn’t that be illegal?
And most importantly: How in the world could I ever get to that place?
What I didn’t know then was that I was following the same idle, restless thought process that led to the creation of Fantasy Island in the first place. According to Aaron Spelling’s producing partner Leonard Goldberg, the idea for the show popped up spontaneously when the two of them were sitting in a frustrating, go-nowhere pitch meeting with ABC. Goldberg started looking off in the distance, his mind wandering. Somebody snapped, “Leonard, is there somewhere you’d rather be?” And Goldberg answered, “I’d rather be on an island with Charlie’s Angels.”
That story—which Goldberg recounts in an interview on Shout! Factory’s season one Fantasy Island DVD set—may or may not be true. When Spelling was alive, he used to say that he was the one who got annoyed at that meeting, griping to the network executives that the only pitch that would satisfy them would be for a show about an island where people indulge in their sexual fantasies. Either way, Spelling and Goldberg agree that in that room they started a conversation about wish fulfillment and quickly realized that what they’d come up with was the essence of drama: a show that asks the question, “What do you think would really make you happy?” And, “If you fulfilled that dream, what would you learn?”
But like Fantasy Island itself, the show’s gimmick was too perfect to be true. The series was commercially successful, running for seven seasons—usually as the perfect Saturday night companion to Spelling and ABC’s The Love Boat—and spawning all kinds of ancillary merchandise and pop-culture parodies. Creatively though, Fantasy Island mostly floundered, always stuck between being a shallow, silly, family-friendly show and aspiring to something more sophisticated. Goldberg says that TV writers flocked to Fantasy Island because it was essentially an anthology, which allowed them to dust off stories that didn’t fit anywhere else. The downside to that was that the producers were often saddled with fairly generic material. Meanwhile, from the beginning the network kept urging them to lighten up, at the expense of following through on the darker, sexier concept they originally came up with (and presented in a well-received pilot movie in 1977).
“Reunion/Anniversary” was the 13th episode of Fantasy Island’s abbreviated first season, originally airing on April 29, 1978, and it’s a prime example of why the show thrived even though it rarely lived up to its promise. The “Reunion” half of the episode is an odd twist on a “teenagers in the woods” horror picture, following four middle-aged adult women as they try to relive their time as college cheerleaders—only to find that one of their number has a different fantasy in mind, choosing to have her friends stalked by a masked killer so that they can understand what it was like for her to be raped back in their school days. Questionable on just about every level (from taste to plausibility), “Reunion” is the kind of story that needs a lot more than 20 chopped-up minutes to make any sense.
The episode’s “Anniversary” half is a lot blander but also more affecting—provided that viewers are willing to meet it at its own level. Ronny Cox plays Tom Elgin, a former high-powered attorney who drank his way out of business. Lucie Arnaz is Toni, his wife, who was a successful playwright until she gave it up to spend her time managing Tom’s messes. For their fantasy, they’ve asked to recreate their wedding weekend, with all of their friends and family, in a facsimile of the estate where they stayed. But as soon as the vacation starts, they realize they’ve made a terrible mistake. They’re embarrassed by what their lives have become, and the presence of two old flames in the wedding party is a reminder that they once had other options. When their old priest arrives and informs them that he actually failed to legally marry them the first time, Tom and Toni have to decide whether or not they really want to get hitched again.
Anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Fantasy Island (or The Love Boat, or Love, American Style, or any movie romance ever) can see where this is going. The couple’s bound to reconcile and, in the process, to get their careers back on track. But it’s how and where it happens that makes a difference. Because this is Fantasy Island, the characters spend a lot of time in revealing bathing suits, even when they’re deciding to call it quits. They’re like Douglas Sirk heroes, transplanted to the beach.
They’re all still underdressed later that same day when Tom and Toni get back together. Through sheer coincidence—or is it?—Toni overhears Tom explaining to his jiggly, bikini-clad friend that for years he’s been accompanying his wife on trips around the world in hopes of saving their marriage. Now he’s only pretending to have fallen out of love with her because he thinks he’s been preventing her from moving on and finding happiness with somebody else. That’s all it takes to give the Elgins their “Wait, what the hell are we doing?” moment.
Like every Fantasy Island episode, “Reunion/Anniversary” is presided over by the resort’s “host,” Mr. Roarke, played by veteran Hollywood character actor Ricardo Montalbán. Sandy Brokaw, Montalbán’s agent, says on the Shout! Factory disc that guests stars loved working with his client, because he had a natural classiness that elevated both passersby and peers alike. (“You always wanted to come up to his level,” Brokaw said.) Yet as he strolled his Island, reminding his staff, “Smiles, everyone, smiles,” Montalbán’s Mr. Roarke seemed both kindly and a little aloof—like he was afraid to get too attached to anyone.
The implication throughout the series was that Mr. Roarke had magic powers, and was perhaps even in league with darker paranormal forces. Though he usually used his gifts and resources for good, there was always a little bit of a “Monkey’s Paw” element to the Island: a “be careful what you wish for” situation. Often, as was the case with “Reunion,” he was privy to his guests’ ulterior motives and would stage different fantasies than the ones customers had bought.
Mostly he stood back and commented on the action, helping the audience to stay on top of what was happening. But he’d also intercede frequently: as in “Reunion,” where he prevents his secret customer from actually hurting her friends, but also in “Anniversary,” where Roarke urges the priest to lie about the Elgins not being married to force their moment of decision. People come to Fantasy Island to get what they need, not necessarily what they wanted. (God only knows what the Yelp! reviews for the place would be like.)
This episode also has the inevitable comic relief, courtesy of Mr. Roarke’s diminutive assistant/protege Tattoo, played by Hervé Villechaize. In this episode, he irritates his boss by learning magic tricks, hoping to become part of the Island’s roster of professional entertainment. Generally though, Tattoo’s purpose was to give Mr. Roarke a person to whom the host would have to explain—in explicit detail—the specifics of everyone’s fantasies, and how he was going to toy with them. Tattoo also gave the show one of its catchphrases (“Da plane! Da plane!”), a requisite for nearly every TV series that debuted between 1975 and 1985. And his loyal companionship gave Mr. Roarke the air of a Bond villain—albeit far more benign.
The steady presence of Mr. Roarke and Tattoo helped give the anthology series some familiar faces for viewers to see each week—similar to what The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery did with Rod Serling. The other constant was the Island itself, which was styled to look like the idealized version of a vacation getaway. The producers combined stock footage from Hawaii, a dock built on the Columbia studio lot, and various locations in the pastoral parts of the greater Los Angeles area. They then filled the screen with exotic-looking ladies and slick excursion vehicles, and they showed the guests being treated to cocktails and VIP service. Even before the story started, Fantasy Island was made to appear like the ultimate fusion of luxury beach resort, ocean cruise, and Disneyland. During the fantasies, even when the plot would peter out, there was always something to look at. “Anniversary,” for example, has one honey of a shot, showing the Elgins’ wedding ceremony on a grassy hill, framed by an open doorway that symbolizes new opportunity.
Still, far too often on Fantasy Island, circumstances dictated form. The need to find two stories per episode for at least 22 episodes a year meant that the writers went to the same well a lot. (Goldberg estimates that at least three dozen times over the course of seven seasons, they did some variation on a plot they called “I wish I was more attractive to the opposite sex.”) The show wasn’t big on subtlety either. Frequent contributor Ron Friedman explained his approach to Fantasy Island by saying. “I don’t believe in quiet desperation, I believe in noisy desperation.” And due to his history and stature in the TV business of the time, Spelling more or less had his pick of former stars who needed work, which meant that in an episode like “Anniversary,” Robert Alda and Jim Backus pop up suddenly for a scene or two, somewhat distractingly.
What would Fantasy Island have been like if Spelling-Goldberg Productions had approached it more like Star Trek or The Prisoner, rather than like The Love Boat? ABC tried to answer that question in 1998, when Barry Sonnenfeld and Barry Josephson revived the show with Malcolm McDowell as Mr. Roarke. The new version flopped, but it was an interesting experiment, attempting to take more seriously the powers of the Island and what it meant to control them. (Tellingly, a young writing team cut their teeth in Hollywood writing for the new Fantasy Island: Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, who’d go on to be part of the core team on Lost, and then would co-create Once Upon A Time.)
The original version, though, had a more tenuous connection to the “fantasy” part of its name—just enough to appeal to young kids, who then found themselves spending their Saturday nights watching stories about people having weird mid-life crises. It was as if someone had gifted Fantasy Island’s writer with a wish-granting magical hunk of real estate and only thought to use it for couples therapy sessions.
And yet there remains something so powerful about the premise of this show, and not just in its “I’d rather be on an island with Charlie’s Angels” inspiration. When I was growing up, the Episcopal Church I attended had a weekend camp for teens and young adults called “Happening,” where the attendees were given letters and gifts from friends and family and even casual acquaintances, so that they’d know just how much they were loved and that other people were thinking about them. The real fantasy in a Fantasy Island episode like “Anniversary” isn’t the repair of a broken marriage, but the idea that some outside party would care enough to try and fix it. The dream isn’t just to escape. The dream is to be carried away.
Next time… on A Very Special Episode: G.I. Joe, “The Invaders”