'The Facts of Life' Is the Ultimate '80s Comfort Food Sitcom

by Imran Khan

12 January 2015

Almost 30 years after its conclusion, putting The Facts of Life on the TV feels like hanging out with an old friend.
 
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The Facts of Life: The Complete Series

(NBC)
US DVD: 13 Jan 2015

The Facts of Life has already gone down in history as one of the longest-running sitcoms of the ‘80s that helped to define the era. Premiering in the summer of 1979, the series has many revisions and reboots that moved with the changing trends of the decade, running for nine consecutive seasons. The program is often fondly recalled for its insanely catchy theme (co-penned by actor Alan Thicke, no less) and the five women who led the series, each possessing a distinct personality that made them every bit as memorable as it did an archetype.

As framed in its debut, the show revolves around a large group of teenage girls in a boarding school, run by housemother and school nutritionist Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae). Following the first season, the series was retooled so that the large group of girls is whittled down to a primary four: Blair, Tootie, Natalie and Jo (played by Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields, Mindy Cohn and Nancy McKeon, respectively). These four characters have since become iconic keepsakes of the ‘80s, tokens of nostalgia that are inevitably brought up whenever discussing Reagan-era television.

The Facts of Life is typical of most ‘80s sitcoms, wherein each episode is hinged on a certain moral. The common ones involve drinking, sex, dating, drugs, peer pressure, family strife, racism and bullying. The Facts of Life has its full share of these lessons, much of them hammered home in the first four seasons. The opening season gets off to a rocky start; to begin with, there are too many cast members to keep track of (including a then preteen Molly Ringwald). Many of the episodes during the first season feature the girls squabbling on matters which at the time seemed incredibly pressing, but are really more of an afterthought nowadays. For instance, marijuana, a hot topic back in the day, is now a punchline on today’s sitcoms.

The first season especially suffers because there were too many cast members involved, never giving writers enough time to fully flesh each one out. The second season fares much better; in it, the show pares the principal cast down to just the four school girls along with Mrs. Garrett. The humor is far more developed in this season. Mrs. Garrett still has that cloying way of the dizzy den mother fussing over the girls, but this time she is more of a concerned source of guidance rather than a complete interference.

The second season also makes a sound move in the employment of Jo, the wisecracking tough girl from the Bronx, who gives the series a much needed injection of cool, clipped humor to balance out the meekness of the other characters. Jo’s insouciance is one of the show’s many bright spots, and her love/hate duality with the toffee-nosed Blair, an upper class socialite, provides the series with a kind of chemistry that boosts its comedic potential, opening up the storylines to all kinds of high jinks. Natalie and Tootie, best friends and the youngest of the quartet, provide a naivety that inevitably leads to situations both madcap and dire.

Despite the fact that the show is very much of its time and shows its age, there are some inspired moments that provide genuine comedy, such as the episode “Gossip” in the second season. Tootie, bored and feeling neglected, decides that a few choice rumors are in order to liven up the environment. What starts out as innocent fun soon becomes problematic when the faculty threatens Mrs. Garrett with her job. Watching Tootie trying to worm her way out of the hot seat is plenty amusing, and it also spotlights the ability of a young performer (Fields) to execute comedic timing with precision—another reason why the show had a successful nine-season run. Other episodes manage to take trivial matters, like reading a fellow student’s diary, and turn it into truly funny nonsense.

Some moments, however, just don’t work, as in the case of the episode in which Tootie throws an overblown tantrum when Mrs. Garrett refuses to allow her to go to a Jermaine Jackson concert. This plotline goes down as one of the stupidest in television history, allotted in a space next to the episode of Punky Brewster in which a kid accidentally locks herself inside a refrigerator, and the ALF series in its entirety.

As the series progresses, more attention is paid to the girls’ love lives, forgoing the common teenage issues as the four got older. This means that there are much fewer moral-based episodes and a stronger emphasis on comedy in later seasons. Season five makes the significant change of displacing the entire cast from the school rooms and dormitories to the campus house and bakery shop which Mrs. Garrett owns and the girls live and work in. The girls, at this point, are still in school, but much of their school problems become peripheral in terms of the storylines. Most season five episodes deal with the hassles of running the bakery shop and trying to find a love interest.

Season six carries on with the shop being the primary space where everyone convenes. Mrs. Garrett is here relegated to the task of shop-minder rather than constant guardian. Some of the funniest episodes of the show are culled from this era, including the girls’ final trip to a local drive-in theatre that is about to be closed down. As patrons tear through the establishment, ransacking the place for any vestiges of memorabilia, Blair has an unfortunate run-in with a female biker who wishes to beat the uppity rich girl to a snivelling pulp.

The seventh season is where the writing and comedy dramatically improve the most. After Mrs. Garrett’s bakery shop burns down, it is revamped as a trendy and chic novelty store (replete with ‘80s new wave paraphernalia). The revamping of the store is meant to capitalize on the changing trends of the ‘80s (a move which many fans of the show have seen as “jumping the shark”) as well as to usher the characters into the throes of adulthood. Divorced from syrupy life-lessons and teenage angst, the show here thrives on the comedic elements, which in turn allow for a wider range of stories.

Highlights from this makeover include the girls trying to pawn off some of the more bizarre stock in their shop onto unsuspecting customers, Mrs. Garrett’s increasing alienation of the hip new wave culture her shop was promoting, and the potshots taken at the expense of little Andy, the new cast member who made his debut in season six. Season seven also introduces a then very unknown and young George Clooney, the local handyman who doesn’t do much other than stand around and provide both the shop ladies and viewer demographics with eye candy, and perhaps also to zip out to the corner store to buy a much needed loaf of bread. Further capitalizing on the ‘80s new wave chic of the times, the show sees an appearance of ‘80s R&B star El Debarge, who manages to get the four girls to (somewhat) do that silly Molly Ringwald dance that was so popular back then. This moment is laughable, and highly entertaining. Nostalgia freaks live for this stuff, and it’s sure to warm the hearts of those who saw it the first time around.

As the series carries on, each of the girls, now women, become more dimensional in character. Their goals, ambitions, troubles, emotions and lives in general are sketched out more thoughtfully as the series comes to its final stretch, with a clear intent on pushing the material into grown-up territory. Jo wants to be a teacher, Natalie a writer, Tootie an actress, and Blair an aging socialite that breaks banks everywhere. By now, Mrs. Garrett has left the household, and in her place is her sister Beverley Ann (played by the admittedly funnier Cloris Leachman).

In its concluding years, The Facts of Life becomes a sitcom for adults. The issues and problems that each house member deals with resonate with a crowd that understands the trials of seeking out careers in the workforce once adolescence is over. Some of the most laugh-out-loud moments take place during the eighth season; try not even breaking a smile when an eavesdropping Blair comes crashing through a bedroom wall of which she’s hidden behind or at Beverley Ann’s reaction to a man leaving Tootie cold when she refuses to sleep with him. You’d be hard pressed to avoid mustering even a chuckle. Some episodes stretch into the comically absurd, like the murder-mystery episode in which each cast member is stalked and killed off in ridiculous ways. Yet with all these silly shenanigans going on and the serious decisions of life to be made, the show pulls off a nice balance between humor and the struggles of adulthood.

The Facts of Life is a difficult series to rate. So much of the show is tied to its self-sustaining nostalgia; almost every episode features some trope of ‘80s sitcoms that is sure to tug at the hearts of those who grew up during that era. But the chemistry between the girls is undeniable, and their solid friendships are probably what will resound with present-day viewers new to the show. On any level, The Facts of Life functions as comfort food-viewing, a show you can put on when you simply want to escape into a world in which all troubles are resolved with a few laughs and a warm, empathetic hug from the presiding den mother. If you grew up with this show, it etched itself into your heart and left a blueprint for your emotional development.

Shout! Factory has done a phenomenal job in putting this collection together. All episodes of all nine seasons are present here in this box set, including some wonderful extras. You may not care for all the supplements, but they’re there if you want them, making this collection a definitive package. Supplements include both the TV movie specials of the series: The Facts of Life Goes to Paris (1982) and The Facts of Life Down Under (1987). Interviews with the cast and a cast reunion are included in addition to an episode of Diff’rent Strokes, where we first get a glimpse of some of the girls from the show. The remastering is very nicely done; since it’s a show from the 1980’s, there’s some wear and tear here and there, but Shout! Factory has taken very good care to put out a quality product for serious fans.

What to say about this series? Re-watching these nine seasons has been like a time-warp back into childhood, a distant place that gets a little closer every time Jo makes a cutting remark or Natalie misses the beat in yet another attempt at a career in journalism. If you watched this show growing up, then you know that somewhere in that house, amidst the fussing, harebrained scheming, cheesy predicaments and all round laughter, you have a place. Is it perfect? No. But like the theme song goes, you take the good, you take the bad…

The Facts of Life: The Complete Series

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