Retrospective

45 years ago, this underrated TV show perfected the anthology format

“The plane! The plane!”

There simply aren’t shows like Fantasy Island anymore. In a post-Peak TV world, there seem to be two styles of television: episodic and serialized. In episodic TV, single, self-contained stories are told in an episode. In serialized shows, episodes contain chapters of a larger narrative.

Fantasy Island was neither of these. Each episode didn’t just have one self-contained story but two, and they were unlike anything before or since. Here’s why, on the series’ 45th anniversary, you should take an island getaway now the entire series is streaming for free on Tubi.

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Fantasy Island was an ABC fantasy drama series that ran from 1977 to 1984. Its format was familiar but unique — every episode began with the arrival of a plane carrying characters ready to experience their greatest fantasy on the island, be that reliving a past regret or immersing themselves into a period of history they’ve always admired. However, these fantasies don’t always go according to plan. Over the course of an hour-long episode, two completely unrelated stories play out.

Hosting these experiences is the dapper Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) and his diminutive assistant Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize), serving every whim of their guests desires. Because of these mainstays, Fantasy Island is best described as a “semi-anthology” series like its sibling series The Love Boat. Any one story could be watched devoid of any context and still make sense.

This makes it the best retrospective watch: You can hop around episodes to watch whatever stories interest you, or take an extended break between episodes. There are two major styles of story: ones where a rich guest pursues a fantasy that ends up teaching them a lesson (like the Gone With the Wind fanatics who learn what life in battle was really like) and the poor guests who scrimp and save to receive closure on something and are irreparably changed.

The show’s semi-anthologized format also makes it the perfect showcase for one-off guest stars. With its late-70s timeframe, Fantasy Island was poised to pick up aging Old Hollywood actors like Ray Bolger and Joan Blondell looking for a quick job, and then-heartthrobs like David Cassidy or Sonny Bono pulling in the teen demographic.

So many guest stars played various characters in multiple episodes. With a short story format, why limit the pool of actors to just one tale? If Eve Plumb — Jan Brady herself — wants to play a superstitious twin, a paralyzed swimmer, and a mother-to-be over the course of three seasons, a little thing like logic won’t get in the way.

Guest stars like Sammy Davis Jr. made Fantasy Island the iconic show it is.ABC

The series also played very fast and loose with its plot. The “fantasy” of Fantasy Island is whatever they desire. Inspired heavily by the 1973 Westworld movie, Mr. Roarke has seemingly endless abilities to make his guests’ dreams come true, but it isn’t strictly supernatural. It plays into the escapism of the show, where anything is possible for the right price.

Fantasy Island was adapted into a horror film in 2020 and even got a TV series reboot on Fox, but there’s simply no replicating the time capsule-like effect of the low-stakes, frothy drama of the original series. If you’re looking to escape to a simpler time or just a dream vacation, Fantasy Island is the perfect show for you.

Fantasy Island is now streaming for free on Tubi.