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If Your Fantasy Is Fascinating Shows, Forget It

TV reviews: 'Fantasy Island' treads water; 'Martial Law,' 'Cupid' don't zing.

September 26, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

"Here we go again," says Britisher Malcolm McDowell as the newer, snider, stranger Mr. Roarke, a mysterious weirdo who operates his own tropical theme park where fantasies come true.

Yes . . . again.

Surely nothing in the new season better epitomizes prime time's creative anorexia than ABC falling back on a remake of "Fantasy Island" to try marginalizing competitors on Saturday night, where the old series played for nearly all of its run from 1978 to 1984. What is television these days if not an eternal stage for the freshly exhumed?

The good news is that this "Fantasy Island," although nothing to build a weekend around, is edgier and wittier than its predecessor, starring white-suited Ricardo Montalban.

Different man, different suits. "Have the white ones burned," McDowell sniffs to an assistant in one of the droll inside jokes that freshen the new "Fantasy Island."

Also premiering tonight, meanwhile, are "Cupid," the modestly lovable ABC hour that "Fantasy Island" precedes, and "Martial Law," the inadvertently laughable cop-adventure series facing Roarke on CBS. Talk about your fantasies.

The new "Fantasy Island" opens and ends each episode at a travel agency right out of "Twilight Zone." And, along with his Armani threads, Roarke has acquired three new facilitators in Cal, his sheep dog of a bellhop (Louis Lombardi); Harry, his haughty concierge (Edward Hibbert) and Ariel (Madchen Amick), his alluring face for all fantasies who tonight goes to work on the first dream seeker off "da plane."

He's Ashby, who "thinks he married the wrong girl." Also arriving are Barnes, "who likes to flirt with death," and a pair of rival sisters who find themselves competing on "Jeopardy!" with Roarke as Alex Trebek ("Jackie, you get to select the first category . . . ").

Then, many, many yadas later, everyone returns home much the wiser.

"Fantasy Island" has a nice, self-mocking irreverence, and McDowell plays the condescending Roarke as a man with a possibly inky past that, over the long haul, would make him much more interesting and palatable than Montalban's stony Mr. Suave.

Its refurbishment and darker tones notwithstanding, though, "Fantasy Island" seems as musty as ever at the core, with Roarke omnipresent as an insufferable know-it-all with all the moralizing answers to such questions as: Does facing danger really define manhood? What is knowledge without humanity? Is the grass really greener?

*

It isn't on CBS, where the adversary of "Fantasy Island" is newcomer "Martial Law," which finds a fireplug of a super-cop from Shanghai teaming in L.A. with a pair of detectives working for Rodeo Drive P.D. Or so you'd guess from a premiere that is doggedly cartoonish, despite the magnetic presence of swift-kicking Hong Kong martial arts maven Sammo Hung. He, at least, is a real kick.

The deadpan Hung is Sammo Law, a fabled Shanghai detective who jets to L.A. on a mission to track down his former Chinese protege, now that she's allied here with a gang of thugs. The two LAPD cops forced to be Sammo's partners, Dana Doyle (Tammy Lauren) and Louis McGray (Louis Mandylor), don't like the new arrangement one bit. Doyle: "Teaming up? It's lame." And also formulaic TV.

Which is the least of this show's worries, as its artificial conflicts and stabs at humor fall faster than the amazingly nimble Sammo's foes. Although the show's action choreography serves him well, the featherweight Lauren dukes down bad guys twice her size with the believability of a Laker Girl putting away Shaq. And why are these L.A. cops even bothering with martial arts, by the way, when they have guns?

"Martial Law" falls short even as lighthearted escapism. A better idea would have had the producers going full-blown either for outrageous camp or for a more thoughtful approach that used these characters to stylishly explore genuine cultural differences. Instead, Sammo is given a mouthful of Charlie Chan truisms that are difficult to understand because of his poor English. On the other hand, what "Martial Law" has to say tonight is rarely worth hearing.

*

If this series takes out "Fantasy Island," though, "Cupid" too will be cooked.

Billed as a romantic comedy, this hour following "Fantasy Island" hopes to create magic between a rubber-room candidate named Trevor (Jeremy Piven) who insists he's Cupid and the skeptical young shrink named Claire (Paula Marshall) monitoring him after his release from Bellevue.

More than anything, the premiere is so interminably long and talky that you'll want to tell Cupid what he can do with his bow and arrow. Yet even if things were snappier, you'd still have to buy the mid-20s-looking Marshall not only as a psychiatrist who's expert on relationships, but also one with the authority and command (neither of which is evident) to run a singles group that eagerly soaks up everything she says.

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