Strange Powers

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

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.

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.)

But here's a better idea: What if McDaniel's son started liking Marilyn Manson? What if he didn't want more attention from Dad? What if not all of the answers were so easy? And what if Mr. Roarke's power were more arbitrary, less attuned to repairing bad parenting and faulty self-images? But of course that's not what we want from magic realism. For the most part, white Americans lack a history in which the fabric of reality is so easily torn: Our truest magic realists are either out on the political fringes, babbling about black helicopters, the ZOG, and The Turner Diaries; or they're African Americans trying to make sense of the slave past as in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon or Charles Johnson's Middle Passage. Given that history, why be surprised by Mr. Roarke's fundamentally pedagogical intentions: "If things come too easily, no one learns anything"? With luck, Fantasy Island will eventually work up the nerve to become less cuddly.

The only place where cuddliness isn't a problem is in teen shows. Buffy has taught us that horror is the most appropriate genre for high school, and that teens' volcanic emotional upheavals make them a natural audience for magic realism. The WB's Charmed (Wednesday, 8 p.m.)--or, let's be honest, The Craft: The Series--is similarly girl-friendly, grasping the appeal of witchery as good girls' chance to be freaky without sacrificing their souls. (I have to admit, however, to being puzzled that the theme song is a remake of the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" which is generally taken as a hymn to gay self-loathing.)

In any case, the lure here is Shannen Doherty, back home on the box after an abortive film career, but still doing her best Brenda Walsh. (Sadly, she won't be joining an equally chastened Luke Perry who will be returning to his old ZIP code in a few weeks.) A TV-sized diva--Susan Lucci for slackers--Doherty plays against type as the eldest and most practical of three sisters who share an enormous house with equally enormous yard in San Francisco (clearly the most fanciful part of the show) and abruptly discover that they share magical powers.

Although the meta-joke's not bad--will Doherty and co-star Alyssa Milano be able to reanimate dead small-screen careers after failing as big-screen sex symbols?--the show itself gets at something very unusual...perhaps intentionally. For if TV knows what to do with parents and what to do with kids, it's still unsure about everything in between. We have the 20s and 30s as coed dorm (Friends and its innumerable clones), high school writ large (Seinfeld), or the period when life centers around your surrogate family at work (shows too numerous to name). But Charmed seems to be groping for an honest vision of many young women's 20s like that conjured by Ally McBeal--an untrustworthy cosmos in which bosses can suddenly devolve into pigs; well-behaved boyfriends into raging monsters (on the pilot, one sister's guy turned out to be a warlock murdering witches around the city to gain their powers); and apparently steady jobs into memories.

The best parts of the first episode mixed magic and, well, realism in equal measure to illustrate how special powers might help one to exact revenge upon a sexist boss who took credit for an employee's work or to pass a demanding chef's audition. In these moments, Charmed touches the emotional heart of a demographic too young for the Lifetime channel and too hip for Touched by an Angel, but hungry for fantasy all the same. Call it Liz Phair's (or Lilith Fair's) America. When all three main characters get together and zap the Evil Boyfriend, their release feels as much metaphorical as literal. Sisterhood, as they used to say, is powerful. Here's hoping Charmed isn't afraid to play out that slogan for all it's worth.

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