Strange Powers

Flights of fancy return to Fantasy Island; Charmed casts a spell for the sisterhood.

A decade before North Americans worked their mouths around unfamiliar tastes like Gabriel García Márquez, TV domesticated magic realism. For South American writers, seismic eruptions of the irrational served as the only means for understanding a "reality" contingent on whichever generals were in power that week. But for I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, irrationality began (and ended) in the home. So while One Hundred Years of Solitude wrestled with the burdens of telling a history too jagged to be believed but too consequential to be ignored, Samantha's problems extended no further than what to do with her fussbudget mother when Darren's boss was coming for dinner.

That's not to say American magic realism was inconsequential, just weirdly conservative. Both sitcoms played with Freud's "Woman: what does she want?" conundrum, offering the reassuring answer that housework was so much more bearable if one simply twitched one's nose. Magic powers beat political ones any day. Feminism, women's rights--who needed them? All Jeannie really wanted was to please Master. And while the most interesting aspect of Bewitched today may be its closeted cast, the show's traditionalism calmed viewers who were scared to contemplate what might be lurking inside their placid homes while the world all around them seemed to be erupting.

Sometimes good guys don't wear white: Malcolm McDowell's Mr. Roarke, joined by his assistant Ariel (Mädchen Amick), leaves the white suit--and Tattoo--behind
Sometimes good guys don't wear white: Malcolm McDowell's Mr. Roarke, joined by his assistant Ariel (Mädchen Amick), leaves the white suit--and Tattoo--behind

By the time we deplaned on Fantasy Island in 1978, the genre had run dry. Ricardo Montalban, one of those hapless souls doomed to a career of inadvertent camp (not unlike his contemporary Adam West, who seemed perpetually unaware of his own ludicrousness), quickly gave up his attempts to shade in Mr. Roarke's dark side and settled for six years of genial self-mockery. Combined with the depressing aura of failure that emanated from every C-list star (Barbi Benton!) who had the peculiar misfortune to visit Roarke's paradise, the result was a truly saddening vision of the steep downslope of fame--as unfunny as a decayed Broadway star tottering around in summer stock. "De plane! De plane!" is, in its way, a ghastly legacy for any actor to drag behind him; Herve Villechaize, who played Tattoo, committed suicide in 1993 at age 50.

But a season after the Love Boat set sail under a new crew (and a Liberian flag, no doubt), Fantasy Island has resurfaced as a television destination (ABC, Saturday, 8 p.m.), this time with Malcolm McDowell doing the honors. The foreign accent could read as camp again (is the idea here that somehow Americans seem too...normal?), but McDowell is mordant enough to anticipate our reactions and play to them. His Mr. Roarke senses his own ridiculousness, and his own power as well. He is helped in this by the self-conscious savvy of the show's creators, who nod to the past without bowing to it--most notably co-executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld, who has made a career out of cheerfully dark humor in films like The Addams Family and Men in Black. True to that title, Roarke rejects the white suit in the first episode, and one of his assistants mutters, "The plane, the plane" before being silenced. (Other throwaway bits reward attentive viewing: Amelia Earhart flies the plane, and the island's garbage man may be God, or some powerful demigod, at least. Not to mention Sylvia Sydney and Fyvush Finkel's sly turns as the "travel agents" who operate a pneumatic tube that carries missives to the island.)

Roarke himself is puckish in the Shakespearean sense of the term, a trickster who messes with humans as much for the sheer pleasure of it as for any real purpose. In the spirit of The Tempest, his shapely and shape-changing assistant is named Ariel (Mädchen Amick)--a substantial makeover after Villechaize's poor Caliban. Roarke flits about the island working his magic, spouting random sententiae without batting an eye. "In my experience, the quest for beauty is really the quest for love," he informs a plain woman whose fantasy was to be beautiful. "Ironic, isn't it?" he sneers at a suspicious tycoon whose snooping has driven his faithful fiancée away. Salman Rushdie it's not, but the show's giddily sinister tone is proof of a sensibility worth watching.

That said, perhaps the best clue to the assumed audience is its sponsor: Oil of Olay, a tried-and-true product of the middle-aged and middle-waged. What we have with the new Fantasy Island is magic realism as therapy--a cosmetic solution to age-old problems. Everyone takes home a useful prize at the end of the hour, whether it's that they should be better dads, take chances on the men they love, or accept that beauty is only skin deep (be sure to take care of that skin!).

And so we meet workaholic exec James McDaniel (NYPD Blue's patriarch with a heart, Lt. Fancy) who ignores his son, gains superpowers, still works too hard, then gives it all up when he finally figures out that Junior is the most important thing in his life. Hurray for dads! The movies, as usual, got there first: Steven Spielberg's Hook is the urtext of magic-dad culture, and a good three-fourths of Robin Williams's recent work hammers this same lesson home. (Moms, unfortunately, fare less well, maybe because male studio execs want their own problems worked out onscreen and figure that women are by definition close to their kids; mother-child bonding is a dog-bites-man story.)

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