Spelling it All Out

by Jaime Weinman

Shout! Factory sent out the third season of Fantasy Island, one of a bunch of Columbia dramas from the ’70s that they’ve been continuing on DVD after Sony/Columbia dropped them. I never watched this show as a kid, so it wasn’t part of my cultural heritage the way it was for other people I know; when I heard “the plane! the plane!” I had to consult a book to find out what the reference was supposed to be. But I have, as I’ve said before, a certain affection for Aaron Spelling shows – as a commenter put it, his shows “were dumb, but they weren’t dumbed down,” meaning that he didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator, he just made what he wanted to see, and what he wanted to see was complete nonsense.

Fantasy Island and The Love Boat are arguably the purest Spelling shows: lots of guest stars, carefully chosen to serve different demographic constituencies; lots of glamorous living and big sets; lots of attention to women’s hair; plots suggestive of old movies (I think they really went out of their way to court the people who watched old movies on TV – much more common at the time than now – even down to the string-heavy music that most real movies didn’t use at the time but dominated the old films) and a rigorously enforced structure. These shows also show that working hard isn’t always the same thing as working good: they were very difficult to make and write, maybe the most difficult in the business. The casting director had to book a lot of stars every week; the head writers had to pick and interweave two or three stories, and make sure everything was written so that no guest star had too much screen time (since you get the stars by making sure they don’t have to work too many days out of the week); the crew had to cater to all the expensive demands of the scripts while maintaining a glamourous Spelling look. None of this meant that these shows were good; they were just really hard to do except for the guests, who had to look on the shows as a sort of paid vacation.

Anyway, one thing that never really clicked in my mind before watching this DVD was that Spelling’s shows are kids’ shows for adults. Or maybe a better description would be grown-up shows for kids. Fantasy Island was technically not a kids’ show, since it aired at 10 o’clock and included tastefully PG-rated sex scenes. (You can always tell a 10 o’clock show, up until NYPD Blue re-defined what you could get past the censors, because they always included a scene with a man and a woman in a hot tub.) But a lot of the people who watched it were kids. And the show, like nearly all Spelling shows, was written in such a way that anyone, no matter how young, could understand it at any point. The idea was to attract a broad family audience even for shows that were not technically family shows: Charlie’s Angels was not a family show, but kids adored it, and the style of the writing was much more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon of the era than an adult drama. Same with Fantasy Island. It was a show about grown-ups, theoretically for grown-ups, written so that kids could follow it easily.

A lot of shows are written this way, of course; what makes Spelling shows hilariously Spelling-esque is that they don’t even try to disguise this. Most shows, even bad ones, will try to find ways to make the exposition less clunky; they’ll fail, but they’ll try. On Fantasy Island and Charlie’s Angels, there was no attempt: every episode starts with the same guy giving us several paragraphs of bald exposition, often giving us what would normally be the emotional subtext that, in any other show, we would see for ourselves. There is never any attempt at subtext or shading, so a plot about women being enslaved and forced to be prostitutes (an episode where the casting director booked the likes of Dorothy Stratten, Robin Riker and Jane Badler for about three lines each) will culminate in the following truly amazing line of primitivistic literalism:

Speaking of Fantasy Island, when Lost was on I used to say that the failure of the ’90s reboot was the only thing standing in the way of a new Fantasy Island for the Lost era. Even though the Malcolm McDowell version failed (honorably), I still think the concept has more remake potential than any show of that era except maybe Greatest American Hero. Normally, it’s pointless to take the premise of an old show and turn it into an ongoing mystery – anyone could have told the producers of the new Charlie’s Angels that no one cared who Charlie was. But Mr. Roarke is one of the few older TV characters who would work as the centre of an ongoing mystery, because people actually did care about the question of who Roarke was and where he got his powers. The writers didn’t care, but audiences did; they asked about that all the time, wrote fanfic to settle the issue, and so on. That’s the kind of mystery which, in a more sophisticated version, could actually engage people, more so than Revolution‘s “why did the power go out?”




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