The Facts of Life and I are both turning 40 this year. One day apart. Making us some kind of Virgo siblings. It certainly feels like I’ve been watching the show all my life. Syndication has a way of tricking you into thinking that.
The first season of Facts looked much different from how most people normally remember it. The show was a spinoff of Diff’rent Strokes. The Drummonds housekeeper, Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae), left the family to become the housemother at Eastland School for Girls in upstate NY. Back then there were seven girls: Blair, Tootie, Natalie, Nancy, Sue Ann, Cindy, and Molly. There was also the head master, Mr. Bradley, and a teacher, Miss Mahoney. The cast had more characters than a Robert Altman movie. By the time season two came along the show was trimmed down to three girls. Rich bitch Blair (Lisa Whelchel), gossipy Tootie (Kim Fields) and bubbly Natalie (Mindy Cohn). Plus, they added a newbie, tough girl Jo (Nancy McKeon). And Mrs. Garrett had been promoted to being the school dietician with the four students working in her kitchen. I actually liked season one, but narrowing down the cast and making things more focused improved it.
The set up for each episode was pretty standard. A problem would arise with one of the girls, jokes would flow, and then things always got worked out in the end. Jo and Blair would throw barbs at each other. She’s blue-collar! She’s rich! Conflict! Tootie and Natalie would get into some hijinks. And, Mrs. Garrett would dole out wise advice. Normally there was a social issue explored. Suicide, eating disorders, pregnancy, teen prostitution, or discrimination. It could all be pretty formulaic, but it worked. I think it was the cast that sold it. You cared about Mrs. Garrett and the girls no matter what situation they were put in. They could have easily been one dimensional characters, but the writing and acting gave them some depth. Well, as much as you can for an 80s sitcom.
Of course, as the show went on (9 seasons and 209 episodes), it didn’t age so well. Once the girls finished at Eastland, the dynamic changed. Then Mrs. Garrett left and was replaced by her sister Beverly Ann (Cloris Lechman). Plus, they threw in a bunch of random new characters: Andy, George, and Pippa. It all got a little dumbed down and one-note. Let’s not even get into the Over Our Heads years. That’s why I tend to stick to the earlier seasons if I come across a rerun. Early 80s, yes. Late 80s (with half the cast in mullets), no.
But, even if it didn’t always get it right, The Facts of Life was an entertaining show and will always be a favorite. You take the good…ah, you know the rest.
I have to mention the two Facts TV movies. The Facts of Life Goes to Paris finds Mrs. Garrett and the girls studying in France for the summer. Jo falls in love while Blair realizes that she’s ok without a guy. So much discovery. In The Facts of Life Down Under, the gang heads to Australia. Blair and Jo get involved with jewel thieves, Natalie explores the outback, and Tootie falls for a faux-Aborigine played by Mario Van Peebles. At some point, a boomerang is thrown. Wacky Aussie adventures!