When we (and I mean "we" as a generation raised on some pretty darn corny TV shows) think back over The Facts of Life, we probably remember the main bullet points:
1. It was Diff'rent Strokes spin-off (created, I suppose, because the Mrs. Garrett character (as played by Charlotte Rae) was just that freaking popular) that took place in the dormitory / lunchroom of an all-girl school.
2. It was about four girls: snooty beaut Blair, sassy lil Tootie, chunky yet charming Natalie, and rough-edged tomboy Jo.
3. It had a theme song that somehow injected itself directly into every section of your brain, where it would imprint its jangly lyrics and goofy chords onto your cerebral cortex, thereby causing you to hum the damn thing, for the rest of your life, at the strangest of moments. (Everyone! Youuuuu take the good, you take the bad, you take 'em both and there you ... oh my brain.)
And of course there are all the trivial little tidbits: Molly Ringwald was a regular in season one, George Clooney was a regular in season eight, Cloris Leachman replaced Charlotte Rae a few years before the whole 9-season affair wheezed to a close -- only to return later in the form of The Facts of Life Reunion (2001). (For the sake of being thorough, let's just mention The Facts of Life Goes to Paris (1982) and The Facts of Life Down Under (1987) and then move on.)
The first season of The Facts of Life is a pretty overstuffed affair. In addition to the early adventures of Blair, Tootie, and Natalie, viewers were also privy to the growing pains of Cindy (Julie Ann Haddock), Sue Ann (Julie Piekarski), Nancy (Felice Schachter), and Molly (yes, that Molly) -- gals who'd all be shown the dormitory door once season 2 got underway. (Also prevalent in season 1 but never again were the contributions of headmaster Steven Bradley (John Lawlor) and the officious Miss Mahoney (Jenny O'Hara).)
Everyone's favorite scooter-drivin' tomboy, Jo (Nancy McKeon), would not make her debut until the suddenly-streamlined Facts of Life began its sophomore season.
Written on a painfully simplistic level and laden with really ripe acting performances (keeping in mind that this was just the first two seasons), The Facts of Life simply doesn't hold up all that well after two-plus decades. When the writers focused on the character-based gags and interplay, TFOL had its moments ... but those 'very special episode' moments are pretty darn painful.
The episodes firmly focused on specific "social issues" (which was most of 'em) underline their cornball morality plays with huge neon letters. Messages and morals are always painted with the broadest brush available; sudden traumas are remedied over the course of one brief commercial break.
But I guess we don't really watch (or revisit) a series like The Facts of Life for its social commentary or its emotional resonance. We watch the thing now because we used to love it when we were kids; nostalgia power at its most semi-embarrassing. So while I watched eight consecutive episodes and didn't really laugh all that much, it was nice to visit with the old girls again. Those who hold the Eastland gals in much higher regard than I should find this dual-season set a real treat. Thirteen episodes from season one and 16 from season two, and here's how it all breaks down:
1. Rough Housing -- While new housemother Mrs. Garrett gets a visit from the Drummonds, tomboyish Cindy is nominated to compete against Blair for the title of Harvest Queen. (Original airdate: 08/24/79)
2. Like Mother, Like Daughter -- During Parents Night, Blair's attractive mother is caught kissing an old high-school beau whose wife is at home with the flu. (8/31/79)
3. The Return of Mr. Garrett -- Mrs. Garrett's gambling ex-husband visits and surprises her by proposing. He also teaches poker to Tootie, who starts winning a lot of money. (9/7/79)
4. I.Q. -- Tootie finds a copy of her friends' I.Q. scores and reveals the information to the girls, with unexpected results. (9/14/79)
5. Overachieving -- Tootie's father is afraid Mrs. Garrett's influence over his daughter is holding her back. Tootie's latest ambition? To open a beauty salon! (10/10/80)
6. Emily Dickinson -- Blair is desperate to finish her poetry assignment, so she "borrows" a poem from Emily Dickinson. But then the headmaster enters it in a national poetry contest... (3/14/80)
7. Dieting -- In order to impress a blind date, Sue Ann goes on a crash diet, placing her health in jeopardy. (3/21/80)
8. The Facts of Love aka Sex Education -- After Mrs. Garrett's sex education class, Blair feels she's ready to handle delivery boy Steve. So she accepts a date ... in his brother's van! (04/04/80)
9. Flash Flood -- As Blair and Tootie struggle to save their animals during a rainstorm, Mr. Bradley braves a rising flood and unknowingly sparks romantic feelings in Blair. (04/11/80)
10. Adoption -- Against Mrs. Garrett's wishes, Blair offers to help Natalie find her birth mother after Natalie admits that she's adopted. (04/25/80)
11. Running -- Mr. Bradley's desire to retain the state track championship is so strong, he pits best friends Sue Ann and Cindy against each other in a cutthroat competition. (05/02/80)
12. Molly's Holiday -- Molly's parents are getting a divorce, so the girls plot a reconciliation. The scheme backfires when Molly's father shows up with his new girlfriend. (06/04/80)
13. Dope -- Blair and Sue Ann join an exclusive clique of girls at another dorm, but they're not quite ready for the group's favorite pastime - smoking marijuana. (06/11/80)
14. The New Girl (Part 1) -- In addition to her new responsibilities as school nutritionist, Mrs. Garrett has her hands full when she decides to make roommates of streetwise new student Jo and snobbish Blair. (11/19/80)
15. The New Girl (Part 2) -- A ridiculous bet between Jo and Blair lands the girls in jail - and expelled from Eastland School. (11/26/80)
16. Double Standard -- Expecting an invitation to the country club cotillion, Blair is shocked to learn that her childhood friend Harrison has invited Jo instead. (12/10/80)
17. Who Am I? -- Tootie has an identity crisis when a new boyfriend criticizes her for having so many white friends. (12/17/80)
18. Cousin Geri -- Blair gets upset when her handicapped cousin Geri, an aspiring comedienne, pays a surprise visit on the eve of a big awards banquet. (12/24/80)
19. Shoplifting -- Jo wants to surprise Mrs. Garrett with a birthday gift to rival Blair's. But the real surprise occurs when Mrs. Garrett goes to exchange it and is arrested for shoplifting. (12/31/80)
20. Teenage Marriage (Part 1) -- Her Eastland schoolmates try to dissuade her from marriage when Jo's steady boyfriend Eddie proposes. (01/07/81)
21. Teenage Marriage (Part 2) -- Mrs. Garrett and the girls attempt to delay the marriage until Jo's mother can be contacted, but Jo and Eddie get wind of their plan and rush off to elope. (01/14/81)
22. Gossip -- Craving attention, and hurt by the continual exclusion from the older girls' activities, Tootie spreads a rumor that Mrs. Garrett was drunk. (06/03/81)
23. Breaking Point -- Blair thinks getting elected student council president is the most important thing in the world. But she gets a wake-up call when a crisis occurs for the winner. (01/28/81)
24. Sex Symbol -- Natalie's first real date with a boy from neighboring Bates Academy has given her quite a reputation. Her phone doesn't stop ringing with offers from his schoolmates ... and she soon finds out why. (02/04/81)
25. The Secret -- Jo is afraid that if she invites her father to a presentation ceremony, her classmates will discover he was just released from prison. (02/25/81)
26. Bought & Sold -- Blair joins Countess Calvet's cosmetic company as a sales representative and gives Natalie a glamorous - but expensive - makeover. (03/11/81)
27. Pretty Babies -- A top fashion photographer is coming to Eastland School to find the new face of the '80s. Blair's positive she's it, but the photographer surprises everyone by choosing young Tootie. (03/04/81)
28. Free Spirit -- When Mrs. Garrett's son pays a visit, no one is more taken with with young musician than Natalie, who decides to drop out of school to become a songwriter. (03/18/81)
29. Brian & Sylvia -- In Buffalo, Tootie & Natalie wind up in the middle of a marital spat between Tootie's Aunt Sylvia and her new husband. (03/25/81)
Video: The episodes are presented in their original fullscreen format, and the picture quality is pretty solid. Sitcoms from this particular era always seem to exude a sort of pastel fuzz, but that could just be my flu medication.
Audio: Dolby Digital No-Frills.
On disc 1 you'll find a pair of featurettes:
Remembering The Facts of Life (18:23) is your standard retrospective piece, full of wistful memories and effusive praise. Interview subjects include casting director Eve Brandstein and actors Kim Fields, Lisa Whelchel, Felice Schachter, Mindy Cohn, Julie Ann Becker,
After Facts (3:47) gives us another brief visit with a few of the old gang, if only so they can tell us what they've been up to all these years: Felice Schacter (Nancy), Julie Ann Becker (Cindy), Mindy Cohn (Natalie), Kim Fields (Tootie), and Lisa Whelchel (Blair).
The extras wind down with a bunch of trailers for I Dream of Jeannie, Gidget & The Flying Nun, "Ladies Night TV," and "'80s Hits.".
My idea of hell is the Facts of Life theme song played on an endless loop for all eternity. (By the way, Alan Thicke wrote the ditty.) The series itself is a corny, dated, intermittently amusing little piece of nostalgia-fluff, but that damn theme song. It haunts me. Recommended for fans; Skip It for anyone else.