If you were a kid in the '80s you knew at least the first few words to "The Facts of Life" theme song: "You take the good, you take the bad . . . ." And watching this show years later, it may strike you that it's not just a jingle. That was the formula for this popular TV show about four prep-school girls and their mentor, Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae).
They were good girls, basically, but boy did they dabble a bit on the bad side—especially in Season Three, which opens with the underaged girls having a "wine party" in their dorm room at the Eastlake School. What should be carefree high school years are turned into some pretty traumatic times, thanks to the decision to make this show a showcase for socially relevant themes. So you get attackers, abandoned babies, cocaine parties, and pimps thrown in with the usual teen themes of dateless dances, boy troubles, diaries, crushes, and relatives who just don't understand them. Watching it again after many years, it may occur to you how the notion of good and bad also applies to the show itself. There are times when "The Facts of Life" feels like an engaging sitcom, while at other times that social sensibility comes across as preachy. Same with the tone. At times it feels contemporary, while at other times it feels quaint. In other words, this is one schizoid show, when you get right down to it. When the four girls are going at it and the lines aren't too cutesy, the show is still fun to watch. It's when the "drama" enters into it that things can get a little predictable and contrived.
If you haven't seen it, "The Facts of Life" experimented with a number of girls in the first season before the writers and directors realized that they needed to keep it simple. They focused on four girls instead of a gaggle: two opposites, and two birds of a feather. Delicate, know-it-all, snooty rich girl Blair Warner (Lisa Whelchel) was offset by roommate Jo Polniaczek (Nancy McKeon), a tough girl from the poor side of town. We never got much of an explanation how a motorcycle-riding, tough-talking, split-your-lip kind of girl ended up at a fancy school like Eastland, but as long as she and Blair squared off in interesting ways, who needed to know? The other pair were the naïve ones, African-American Tootie (Kim Fields) and weight-challenged Natalie (Mindy Cohn), who provided much of the comic relief. And for sagely advice, there was Mrs. Edna Garrett, who lectured like Mike Brady and had various jobs on the show that put her in close contact with the girls.
The season's best episodes were teaching episodes involving Blair's cousin Geri, who had cerebral palsy. Showing Geri (played by Geri Jewell, who had CP) interact with the girls and have ambitions to become a comedienne despite her handicap was a real blow struck for people with disabilities everywhere, one which said, I'm normal, I'm just like you except for this physical thing. This season, Jermaine Jackson also guests. Here's how the 24 episodes on three single-sided discs play out:
1) "Growing Pains"—Tootie resents not being included in Blair's wine party, and decides to show them by getting drunk.
2) "Fear Strikes Back"—While walking home alone, Natalie is attacked and becomes afraid to leave the school.
3) "A Baby in the House"—A former student who married ends up leaving her baby at the school and disappears.
4) "A Friend in Deed"—Blair learns that her mother wasn't in the hospital for a facelift, as she said. It was for a breast cancer biopsy.
5) "Front Page"—Jo decides to get back at her journalism teacher by writing about his arrest at a cocaine party. But she doesn't get the facts right.
6) "Give and Take"—Mrs. Garret has to take a second job because of hard times, but the girls are just as demanding as ever.
7) "Sweet Sorrow"—Eddie, Jo's boyfriend, thinks they're growing apart. Maybe that's because Jo's spending a lot of time with a guy from Bates Academy.
8) "From Russia With Love"—Natalie's grandma visits, and she drops ten years, with grandma still treating her like a child.
9) "Dear Me"—Tootie does an end-around when pressured to date, by inventing an imaginary boyfriend (shades of "The Brady Bunch").
10) "Cousin Geri Returns aka Geri's Romance"—When a teacher asks Geri out, Blair is worried her cousin is going to have her heart broken.
11)" Legacy"—A new library funded by and dedicated by Blair's late grandfather hits a speed bump when new information surfaces about his life.
12) "Green-Eyed Monster"—Natalie and Tootie come to blows over a part in "South Pacific."
13) "The Americanization of Miko"—In another socially relevant episode, a new Japanese student stands up to her rigid, traditional father.
14) "The Marriage Brokers"—The girls grab their shotguns, figuratively speaking, when they find out how long Mrs. Garrett has "known" a man she's dating.
15) "Starstruck"—Tootie has a crush on Jermaine Jackson, and that's worrying Mrs. Garrett. Hey, at least it's not Michael.
16) "The Four Musketeers"—The girls, who'd been on probation, decide to live separately in the dorms.
17) "The Affiar"—Mrs. Garrett and the girls see Natalie's father with another woman.
18) "Runaway"—In a memorable episode, Tootie runs off to New York City wanting to see a Broadway play, but she ends up being recruited by a pimp.
19) "New York, New York"—This time it's Blair and Jo who head to the city to meet with old friends, a mirror held up to them that shows each just how much she's changed.
20) "Kids Can Be Cruel"—Natalie and Blair face off in random-acts-of-cruelty.
21) "Mind Your Own Business"—Blair reads Natalie's diary, and that leads to some new rules being formed, with predictably bad results.
22) "The Academy"—Jo sets Blair up with a date, a guy who's been sent to a military academy.
23) "Jo's Cousin"—Jo's uncle doesn't like his daughter being interested in boys, and somehow Jo gets caught in the middle.
24) "Read No Evil"—Natalie takes a stand against book banning and ends up being fired from her position as editor of the school newspaper.
Video: "The Facts of Life" is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the picture quality is generally decent. The colors are bright, and the distortion isn't bad on widescreen TVs. There's a slight graininess, but that's pretty typical of shows from this era.
Audio: The audio is an English Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, but so much of it is dialogue coming out of the center speaker that it may as well be Mono. It's an okay soundtrack—nothing to complain about, and nothing to distinguish it. English closed captions are provided.
Extras: There are no extras.
Bottom Line: Though there are some strong episodes this season that manage to effectively combine laughs and poignancy, too many of the episodes are didactic and high-minded in an obvious way. They all but shout, Did you learn your lesson? Then too, a little Mrs. Garrett's affected way of speaking goes a long way. And that's a fact.