Fantasy Island (2021)

3 out of 5

Created by: Elizabeth Craft & Sarah Fain

covers season 1

Fittingly, the Fantasy Island reboot of 2021 is perfectly pleasant viewing.

Fantastical setting aside, while essentially fitting to a template – an A story and B story arrive to our titular island, requesting some fantasy that is subverted by island magicks and, for each, results in a clear and concise moral and happy ending, just in time for credits – this is exactly the kind of popcorn show I hope the major stations are learning to make. Shows of the past year or so have felt the need to be topical – racism, sexism – in more direct ways than we’ve seen in eras past, not to mention factoring in COVID, but while a lot of these efforts have been admirable, and necessary in advancing the overall conversation, they are also somewhat checkbox efforts: “Well, we got our episode about workplace abuse out of the way, now back to the main plot!” I don’t want to pitch Island as especially progressive, but it uses its setup to normalize some relationship structures and choices that may fall outside what’s (more and more datedly) seen as the “norm,” and it treats these as secondary to whatever A or B’s particular quandary. It might factor into it, but it’s not something that needs to be directly addressed. Again, it just is what it is; FI leans into how ideal everything is on an island that grants fantasties to, basically, not worry about this stuff.

Calling it “stuff” is minimizing it, for sure, and I don’t want to curb the above-mentioned conversations, it’s more that I want to encourage this mentality of inclusion as the norm. Fantasy Island might have cutely backed its way into that by putting its islanders on permanent vacation, but that also makes sense for the setting, and frees up the various plots to be much more varied than standard boy meets girl fare. It also encourages some patience: our two island guides, Elena (Roselyn Sánchez) and Ruby (Kiara Barnes), who guide their guests through their particular revelations, have their own character arcs, and the show’s writers aren’t necessarily in a hurry over the season’s 8 episodes to force those arcs into easily digestible resolutions. Similarly, with each weekly set of island visitors, one of the two – A or B – will have a more lightweight story, while the other will have something a little more complex and grey; the show hedging its bets.

None of this is outside of that template, or even particularly deep, but it’s very entertaining – Sánchez is fantastic at not overplaying her character’s mixed emotions at being host to such a wondrous place, but missing out on much of life herself; Barnes’ Southern accent might be a bit much at times, but she effects her unique “dual” role rather perfectly otherwise; John Gabriel Rodriquez as island transporter to-and-fro is similarly very charming; plus the various weekly recognizable faces – and successfully uses its fantasy format to push at the walls of that template, moreso than other prime-time shows might attempt.