You take the good, you take the bad, la la la something la la la, The Facts of Life, THE FACTS OF LIFE
Some theme songs are just so catchy you remember them even though you don't know the words. But memory can play tricks on a person. I remember watching "The Facts of Life" in the '80s with my kids after it spun off "Diff'rent Strokes." Or at least I thought I remembered it. But it turns out that I really don't know WHO the people are from the first season, and what I thought was a mostly cutesy show actually has more innuendo and "adult"-related plots than I recalled seeing during the Reagan years. Then again, if the President could sleep through meetings, the rest of us could be excused for nodding off while we watched TV with our families.
Season One is pretty much of a surprise nod-off. Charlotte Rae, who played the feisty housekeeper in "Diff'rent Strokes," was the focus early on, before the spotlight turned on delicate rich girl Blair Warner (Lisa Whelchel) and tough poor girl Jo Polniaczek (Nancy McKeon). But McKeon wasn't added until the start of the second season. Until then, the Eastland private school for girls was overrun by no-names and no-personalities. There was Sue Ann Weaver (Julie Piekarski), Cindy Webster (Julie Anne Haddock), Nancy Olson (Felice Schacter) and Miss Emily Mahoney (Jenny O'Hara). Even a barely recognizable Molly Ringwald seemed bland as sugarless oatmeal as Molly Parker. But to the producer's credit, they recognized pretty quickly that the keepers of the girls from the first season were Whelchel and fellow uniform-wearers Kim Fields (as the cast's lone black girl, Tootie) and Mindy Cohn (as weight-challenged Natalie Green). When McKeon was added and the rest of the girls were removed so that it was just a foursome with nameless characters in the background, the show glided along—lasting, in various permutations, nearly 10 seasons.
And you have to give the producers a big pat on the back for shifting the focus from Rae's character, Mrs. Edna Garrett, to the girls, because Garrett's goofy voice and mannerisms can get annoying in large doses. John Lawlor played headmaster Steven Bradley in the first season, replaced by a headmaster (Kenneth Mars) who would be seen almost as little as the eccentric boss of "Charlie's Angels."
As with "Diff'rent Strokes," the episodes were an odd combination of goofy, not-terribly-real characters or lines and serious themes. Episodes dealt with not only typical teen problems, but bigger ones, like divorces, disabilities, and deaths. In Season One, the show was still trying to find itself. By Season Two, a winning formula and focus emerged, with the show ending the year in the #26 spot in the Nielsen's. The third season it would climb two more spots—the highest it would finish.
To refresh your memory, here's how the episodes played out:
1) "Rough Housing"—The cast of "Diff'rent Strokes" decides to visit their former housekeeper, whom they still think is gone only temporarily. Meanwhile, Blair is running for Harvest Queen, and Mrs. Garrett does a makeover on a tomboy whose sexual orientation the other girls are spreading false rumors about.
2) "Like Mother, Like Daughter"—On Parent's Night, Blair's mom is seen kissing an old high-school flame whose wife couldn't attend because of the flu.
3) "The Return of Mr. Garrett"—A strange episode has Mrs. Garrett's ex- (Robert Alda) turning up and teaching poker to Tootie and proposing (Bluff? No bluff?) again to Edna.
4) "I.Q."—When Tootie finds copies of her friends scores and shares the information, it shakes things up a bit. One of the better episodes.
5) "Overachieving"—Tootie's father accuses Mrs. Garrett of holding her back after learning that her latest dream is to open her own beauty salon.
6) "Emily Dickinson"—Blair lifts a line or two from the famous poet in order to pull an assignment out of the fire, but the flames are fanned when the headmaster decides to enter it in a national contest.
7) "Dieting"—Eating disorders is the topic, as Sue Ann puts her health at risk trying to shed a bunch of weight she doesn't need to shed.
8) "The Facts of Love, AKA Sex Education"—Mrs. Garrett does it again, this time launching Blair straight from her sex education class into the arms of a delivery boy. Will Blair's vanity get her in trouble in the boy's van?
9) "Flash Flood"—Blair gets a crush on the headmaster in an episode where everyone works under pressure to save animals during a rainstorm.
10) "Adoption"—Blair helps Natalie find her birth mother, against Mrs. Garrett's advice.
11) "Running"—Mr. Bradley wants a state championship, and he doesn't mind pitting two friends against each other to win it all.
12) "Molly's Holiday"—Molly's parents are divorcing and the girls are conspiring to get them back together again, a plan that fizzles when her father shows up with a new girlfriend.
13) "Dope"—Yep, this is the marijuana episode, with Blair and Sue Ann joining a clique at another dorm and encountering a different sort of pastime. This episode was dropped in reruns because of the controversial title. Helen Hunt ("Mad About You") guests.
14 & 15) "The New Girl," Parts 1 & 2—Jo is introduced, with a memorable episode in which Blair and Jo compete to attract men in a bar landing the girls in jail and getting them expelled.
16) "Double Standard"—Blair does a double-take when her childhood friend invites Jo to a country club cotillioin instead of her.
17) "Who am I?"—Tootie wonders, after a new boyfriend comes down on her for having too many white friends. Yep, this is the race episode.
18) "Cousin Geri"—More social relevance, this time a lesson on what it's like to be physically challenged . . . and still normal. Blair's handicapped cousin Geri visits on the eve of a big awards banquet. One of the better episodes.
19) "Shoplifting"—Jo's gift to Mrs. Garrett wasn't quite what she wanted, nor was getting arrested for shoplifting when she tries to return it.
20 & 21) "Teenage Marriage" Parts 1 & 2—Jo's boyfriend, Eddie, proposes, and Mrs. Garret and the girls conspire to derail things, at least until Jo's mother can be reached. Comedian Bill Dana guests.
22) "Gossip"—Tootie needs somebody to pay attention to her, and so she creates a story about seeing Mrs. Garrett drunk . . . which has predictable consequences.
23) "Breaking Point"—Blair wants to be student council president and competes like crazy, until she gets a dose of perspective when real life hits her opponent.
24) "Sex Symbol"—Natalie's phone keeps ringing, and it turns out that her first date with a guy from Bates Academy is responsibe. Easy? Natalie??
25) "The Secret"—Jo's father was once in prison, and it's not something she wants her classmates to learn.
26) "Bought & Sold"—Blair turns sales rep for a cosmetic company and gives Natalie a makeover to (financially) die for. Zsa Zsa Gabor guests.
Video: The video quality for "Facts of Life" is sharper than "Diff'rent Strokes" but still slightly grainy, as one might expect for a TV show from the '80s. But the color is good, with not a whole lot of pulsing in the reds and vibrant shades. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1.
Audio: No frills here, with a basic Dolby Digital Mono. But aside from that catchy (la la la la) theme song, it's mostly dialogue anyway, so the fact that the voices are concentrated in the center isn't too disturbing.
Extras: There are two features, one "After Facts" that catches people up on what the gang did after the show, and another recollection show where the principles talk about each other and their experiences on the set. Both are, like the show, just slightly above average.
Bottom Line: Because it sought to deal with teen problems and social issues, "The Facts of Life" can seem dated at times, even more than the styles of dress. But the four girls do a good job with fairly formulaic and preachy scripts—enough to make it entertaining family fare, if your kids are approaching puberty, that is.