‘Fantasy Island’ Revival Swims in Surprisingly Deep Waters: TV Review

There’s an obvious grabbiness to the premise of “Fantasy Island” — the 1977-84 ABC drama now revived as a Fox summer soap. In the show’s first run, Ricardo Montalbán and Hervé Villechaize were hoteliers able to alter reality per guests’ cravings, often in frightening ways. The appeal is as old as King Midas, whose request for the golden touch, once fulfilled, ruined his life — a reminder to be happy with one’s own lot. Little wonder that there have been several attempts to bring the isle back, including a horror-film adaptation last year.

This new “Fantasy Island” lacks the 2020 Blumhouse film’s savage imagination, but has its pleasures. Roselyn Sanchez plays a descendant of Montalbán’s Mr. Roarke; her frosty mien helps create oddity and remove. Aided by Ruby (Kiara Barnes), who journeys to the island in the pilot, Sanchez’s Elena Roarke improves her guests by giving them what they need, in a manner that looks in literal terms like what they want.

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This can add up to a trite semantic reversal: Bellamy Young, for instance, plays an image-conscious news anchor who wants to eat whatever she wants without gaining weight. Would you be shocked to learn that food is not what she’s most hungry for? Elsewhere, a mother (Debbi Morgan) wishes to reconnect with her estranged daughter; Morgan’s narcissist is forced to radically decenter herself when she’s made invisible. The daughter who wouldn’t see her now cannot.

This “Fantasy Island” lets itself off the hook too often, tending toward the simplistic. And though the “White Lotus”-y surroundings evoke a contemporary wellness resort, there is little in the story about what people in 2021 would expect from their time there. There’s a certain first-pass quality to the writing here: Just a bit of polish would have benefited a show meant to evoke the best of everything.

So it comes as a surprise when “Fantasy Island” signals it has something more on its mind. It pushes back against Sanchez’s tight reserve, suggesting the loneliness inherent in fulfilling everyone else’s dreams. Sanchez does not give the viewer too much to hold on to, but she summons grasping affection both for assistant Ruby — herself plainly ambivalent about island life — and for John Gabriel Rodriquez’s Javier, the pilot who flies guests from the mainland. They’re all trapped, ceding their lives to this project. On the margins of a good-enough show is a sense of mournfulness and angst.

All of which would seem to run counter to the fantasy of it all. And yet “Fantasy Island” is nourished by occasional curiosity about what this franchise can do. Imaginative jags here can be rushed and easily resolved. But a slower-burn yearning elsewhere seems — given low standards for network drama nowadays — if not surreal, then at least unexpected.

“Fantasy Island” debuts on Aug. 10 at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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