La nota

Watching Fantasy Island Feels Like Magical Realism Therapy — & I’m Really Into It

Latines love entertainment. For years, we have been the top moviegoers — even though the films we watch rarely reflect our communities. While we represent 19% of the U.S. population, we make up only 4.6% of movie roles and 5.3% of TV roles. When we do see ourselves on the big or small screen, we are often playing one-dimensional characters or are cast in films riddled with stereotypes, tropes, and stories that fail to represent the totality of who we are. So we decided to hold Hollywood accountable. Welcome to La Nota, a column where we measure the (mis)representation of Latines in film and TV and grade projects against a Somos test that looks at gender, race, language, and more. This month, we’re grading the Fox reboot series “Fantasy Island.”
Imagine this: you travel to a fantasy island where you can experience your wildest dreams on a magical land, away from everything and everyone you know. But there’s a catch: living out your fantasy reveals your deepest and oldest wounds and forces you to face truths you have been avoiding about yourself and your life for years, maybe decades. 
Nothing is off-limits for the magic that operates in this whimsical world: time, space, and death are often played with or overcome, which is why things get real and deep very quickly. You’d be signing up for a fantasy but also for a life-changing experience. Would you accept going on this journey? Would you be willing to experience your deepest desire if it meant leaving with a realization that would force you to change how you live your life? Could you process something of this magnitude under the burning island sun?
This is the premise of Fox’s Fantasy Island, a sequel to the original 1977 show of the same name. In this version of the show, Mr. Roarke (originally played by Ricardo Montalbán) is no longer the keeper of the mysterious land somewhere near Devil's Island in the Atlantic Ocean — it’s his grandniece, Elena Roarke, played by Puerto Rican actor Roselyn Sánchez. Much like her predecessor, Roarke offers a kind of therapy to the fantasy-seekers that arrive on her island, managing their expectations by warning them that fantasies aren’t always what they seem. The leading role and location of the series — it’s filmed in Puerto Rico — are fitting, as the Caribbean archipelago is endlessly exploited by tourists and rich folks looking for tax breaks.
Fantasy Island, which premiered its second season on January 2 on Fox and is also available for streaming on Hulu, is an entertaining and unpredictable show that captured my heart due to its central theme: the human need for emotional vulnerability and connection, and the mess we make out of meeting those needs. The format of each episode, which depicts the journey of the guests who arrive on the island and usually leave by the end of the episode, allows each chapter of the show to explore new characters as well as deepen the stories and characterizations of the regular cast. And the stories told by these characters are all about what we owe to each other. 

"Fantasy Island is an entertaining and unpredictable show that captured my heart due to its central theme: the human need for emotional vulnerability and connection, and the mess we make out of meeting those needs."

Similar to The Good Place in how its characters excavate the human condition through magic or fantasy elements, the show feels like a therapist’s version of magical realism, and I mean this in the best way. Providing people with their fantasies creates a chain reaction in their lives. From a man who wants to be a chick-magnet and finds out it’s not as fun as he thought it would be to a cat lady who needs to know if her orange cat Bobo loves her back, we are shown, again and again, that the reason we are on this earth is to love and understand each other, even if it hurts, even if it’s hard, and even if we have desires that are distracting us from what we really need. 
Through providing the guests with what they want the most, the island reveals that wanting something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for us. And, perhaps cornily, the answer we needed was already right in front of us — we just need to accept it.
Delightfully, the magical island is also invested in teaching life lessons to the people who live and work there. Elena Roarke, who at first seems to be an uptight girlboss archetype, reveals herself to be just as scared of human connection as her guests when she embarks on a relationship with Javier (John Gabriel Rodriguez). Ruby Akuda, played by the stunning Kiara Barnes, is learning how to be an out queer Black woman after staying in the closet for most of her 75-year life (in this case, Fantasy Island is so invested in Ruby’s need for connection that it grants her a new life. She becomes young again in the first season, as long as she doesn’t leave the island). Meanwhile, Helena Reyes, introduced to the show in the first episode of the second season and played by Mexican-Egyptian American actor Alexa Mansour, is seeking her biological father after losing her mother suddenly the previous year. 

"Fantasy Island was a surprising breath of fresh air in the fast-paced game of representation in Hollywood, and its diverse characters give an extra shine to an old show with an already enticing premise."

The three women make up the core of the show — and while delivering services to guests who are themselves doing some hardcore inner work, they are also being taught their own lessons by the island. All of the episodes I was given screeners to (I watched six episodes of the newest season that is currently being released) were a delight to watch particularly because the storytelling always returned to these three leads. I am looking forward to knowing more about Ruby’s late queerness and how she navigates the reality of being stuck in a magical island with her need for queer love, as well as discovering whether — and how — Elena will open up to her lover. 
Fantasy Island was a surprising breath of fresh air in the fast-paced game of representation in Hollywood, and its diverse characters give an extra shine to an old show with an already enticing premise. The guests that travel to the island in each episode are also a diverse bunch: for example, Jonathan Bennett, most commonly known for his role as Aaron Samuels in Mean Girls, goes to Fantasy Island to patch things up with his boyfriend. By setting this tone — one that is inclusive — at the face of the show’s viewers, the audience can expect nuanced and interesting narratives that go beyond the main characters. And in the end, all guests have something in common: their search for something bigger and the revelation that they already have everything and everyone they need — they just need to let go.
That said, here's how Fantasy Island fared on Somos’ test La Nota, which grades along areas like diversity in gender & sexuality, race, and region & cultural identity; the authentic use of Spanglish, multilingualism, or accents; the reproduction of stereotypes and tropes; and, well, the quality of the project overall.
Gender & Sexuality: B 
I love that the main characters are women and that one is a Black queer woman who only seems to date brown women. Other queer characters were also included as guests to the island, but they are not recurring roles. 
Regional Diversity: D
While the lead of the show is played by a Puerto Rican actor and one of the main actors of season two is Mexican, their cultural backgrounds are unclear on the show, so there isn’t much regional diversity to speak of. In fact, the location of the island is somewhat mysterious, so it’s difficult to pinpoint the nationalities of the Latine characters.
Language: D 
While two of the characters have Spanish accents when speaking in English, they rarely switch to speaking in Spanish or other languages spoken in Latin America and the Caribbean. 
Race: B
The two main characters are women of color, but there isn’t much diversity in race beyond that. Nevertheless, giving the leading roles of a show to women of color is rare and I appreciate seeing Sánchez and Barnes in this space.
Stereotypes & Tropes: A
The show doesn’t reproduce any tropes. Though Elena is the host of the island, she isn’t submissive and is an autonomous character. 
Was it Actually Good? B
I was left wanting to watch more of this show. I want to know what happens to all the characters I fell in love with.

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