The premise of Diff'rent Strokes followed that of many other socially conscious, well-intentioned sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s, which often featured a kindly middle-aged man helping out children who need a family, including shows like Webster, Punky Brewster, and even one of the forerunners of this genre decades earlier, A Family Affair.
On Diff'rent Strokes, wealthy Phillip Drummond takes on the task of raising his late housekeeper's children, Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis (Todd Bridges). The cast is rounded out by Drummond's daughter, Kimberly (Dana Plato) and his housekeeper. In this season Charlotte Rae's Edna Garrett was spun off into her own show, the wildly successful The Facts of Life, and Adelaide (Nedra Volz) replaced her.
Season Two experienced many more transitions than a mere housekeeper change, however. Drummond officially adopts Arnold and Willis in a two-part episode in which a shady relative (Sanford and Son's Whitman Mayo) resurfaces just before the ink is dry on the adoption paper, throwing the entire possibility of adoption into jeopardy. Arnold's goldfish dies (a plot that was later to be repeated on The Cosby Show), and at least two episodes focus on Drummond's search for love. In "Friendly Mate," the boys set Drummond up with a dating service, and in "Teacher's Pet," Drummond begins dating Arnold's teacher (Mary Ann Mobley, who would later resurface as Maggie Drummond).
There are also many guest stars featured this season, most notably Muhummad Ali, before Parkinson's robbed him of much of his ability to speak and walk. What is absolutely astonishing about this episode is that it is a direct copy of the episode of The Brady Bunch where Bobby schemes to meet Joe Namath. M*A*S*H*'s McLean Stevenson visits as a crossover from the abysmal Hello, Larry. Dabney Coleman plays the bigoted father of Arnold's new friend in an overlong, tedious, 2-part episode called "Arnold's Girlfriend."
One of the best-remembered episodes from this season is "Guess Who?," where Kimberly falls in love with a boy, Roger, who is secretly prejudiced against Arnold and Willis. Roger suggests Willis take his sister (Melora Hardin) to a dance without knowing that Willis is black, but fortunately Arnold has captured evidence of Roger's prejudice on audiotape. What is memorable about this episode is that, in order to retaliate, Kimberly appears in blackface and an afro wig at the end of the episode.
Many of the plotlines predictably address the topic of race, and there is an effective running theme of Willis trying hard to maintain his roots while at the same time embracing the lifestyle living with Drummond has afforded the boys.
Weaker episodes include one where Arnold takes karate in order to fight the school bully, The Gooch. Even as a kid I hated The Gooch episodes. The Valentine's Day retrospective episode is laughable considering the fact that when it aired, the show hadn't even run for two seasons. Coupled with the fact that for most of the episode Arnold and Willis are trapped together in their building's basement, it makes for a cliché-ridden disappointment.
There are some good episodes to be found this season, but I think the show really hit its stride in later seasons, when Willis began dating more and many of the plotlines focused around Arnold's school. Think of memorable characters like the lovely teenage Janet Jackson as Charlene, Arnold's smart-mouthed, wheelchair bound friend, Kathy, and Arnold's goody-goody nemesis, Lisa. Those were the episodes that made this show memorable, even if they featured cheesy plotlines like Willis, Charlene, and Kimberly forming a group and singing "Ebony and Ivory."
Diff'rent Strokes – The Complete Second Season is presented in 1.33:1 full screen, and it is a pleasantly surprising improvement over what one might expect when viewing it on television. The colors and picture quality are incredibly vivid, and it truly enhances the viewing experience.
This season is presented in Dolby Digital sound, which is adequate, but not remarkable in terms of quality.
Season One of this show features two retrospectives, including a present day interview with some of the cast, but here there are none to be found.
This uneven season is a must for fans of the show, but in my opinion, Season Three is when this show really hit its stride. Try renting this season or reading a full episode guide before you buy it.