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Facts Of Life: The Complete Series, The

Shout Factory // Unrated // January 13, 2015
List Price: $199.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted January 3, 2015 | E-mail the Author
In 10 Words or Less
A classic ‘80s series finally reaches the end

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Good sitcoms, the ‘80s
Likes: Charlotte Rae, the girls
Dislikes: Melodrama, reality's victories over nostalgia
Hates: Uncompleted TV releases

The Story So Far...
One of NBC's spotlight sitcoms during the 1980s, The Facts of Life spun housekeeper Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae) from Diff'rent Strokes off into her own series, where she acted as a surrogate mother to her gaggle of students from the Eastland private school for girls. The show ran for nine seasons, of which five seasons have been released on DVD, in four box sets. DVDTalk has reviews of all four releases.

The Show
For most people, the name The Facts of Life conjures up one of two things, the show's incredibly catchy Alan Thicke-penned theme song or its dramatic "very special" episodes, like the time when Natalie (Mindy Cohn) became the first of Edna Garrett's girls to lose her virginity. Over the nine-year course of the series, under the supervision of Mrs. Garrett, the leading ladies--Natalie, Tootie (Kim Fields), Blair (Lisa Whelchel) and Jo (Nancy McKeon)--grow from private-school students to college students to young adults, experiencing life, love and loss along the way. The main cast had excellent chemistry, evident from the start, with Rae's brassy charm setting the tone, the combative class-war relationship portrayed by Whelchel and McKeon powering most episodes and the natural comedic skills of Fields and Cohn earning the majority of the laughs.

The show is well-remembered for tackling a host of serious subjects, including rape, abortion, drugs and other taboo areas, but in re-watching it, the heaviness of the show is rather surprising. Considered a sitcom, it was often more like a series of short plays at the start, with the studio audience sitting silently as the drama unfurled, be it Natalie being almost sexually assaulted (while wearing a Charlie Chaplin costume, which paints an odd picture of the attacker, if you think about it), Blair's embarrassment over her CP-afflicted cousin (comic Geri Jewell) or a classmate killing herself when her parents get divorced. The show is a borderline soap opera throughout the first half of its run, full of screaming and crying, with episodes frequently lacking in laughs.

Even when the show is drowning in melodrama though, it does have a few tricks to keep things interesting, like "Dear Apple," which sees Jo turn to a talking computer for help with her problems with Blair (in one of several episodes written by future Oscar-winner Paul Haggis [Crash.]) Its downbeat ending, a common attribute of the series, is drastically different than most sitcoms of the era (or any era since), while "The Interview" takes the artistic tack of crafting an episode via interviews conducted with the girls and Mrs. Garrett, giving the show an unusual energy that makes it far more unique than the usual episode.

Though the show was built on topic-heavy plots that continually walked the edge of "very special episodes," the series often showed it could do silly well, thanks of a main cast that was quite capable of broad comedy. Later seasons lightened up, with fantasy episodes that offered the opportunity to cut loose, like looks at the girls' future (including one set in the not-so-futuristic year 2000), the delightful "62 Pick-Up," which casts the girls as variations on characters from Grease; and the fantastically wacky "Truck Stop," with a story written on the fly by Natalie and acted out by the other characters. It's entirely likely that these comedic side-steps wouldn't have worked without the more serious history the show laid down for the characters, but it makes one wonder how funny the show possibly could have been if the issue-of-the-week plotting had been toned down earlier.

On the other hand, when the show ran amok, it could get ridiculous, as one will note whenever a musician appeared on the show. From Jermaine Jackson's early episode, which resulted in Tootie being put in a headlock and her spirit crushed, to Michael Damien playing a slick singer with the ridiculous name of Flyman, to the girls getting the chance to sing with El Debarge as a backing group called Sexy Lingerie, the show seemed to go off the rails when ‘80s pop culture came to the fore. This goes double for the fashion and hairstyles as they become increasingly era specific. Looking at Jo's knee-length jackets and Blair's feathered hair, one experiences a mix of longing for a ridiculously-dressed era and a sense of severe embarrassment for American culture.

For a show that lasted for nearly a decade and is well-remembered with a set core cast, The Facts of Life was a series in constant flux, from the very beginning, with the girls' school experiencing several changes between the back-door pilot and the first episode. Almost everything about the show changed at one point or another, with the show falling prey to basically every jumping-the-shark trope known to television, from the replacement of characters (season one and two are drastically different), the changing of settings (from the school to a bake shop to a novelty store) and the introduction of younger and younger new cast members aimed at appealing to younger audiences, right down to the brief stay of Blair's infant sister Bailey.

The way new characters shuffled on and off the show was almost a joke, like the handyman played by George Clooney, a princess who became a student (Heather McAdam), street urchins like Kelly (Pamela Adlon) and Andy (McKenzie Astin) or, the most egregious addition, Aussie exchange student Pippa (Sherrie Krenn), a nod to America's brief ‘80s fascination with Australia. The series' death knell though was likely rung when, in season eight, Rae left the series, replaced by Cloris Leachman, playing Mrs. Garrett's sister Beverly Ann, who never really fit in with the show. Even the iconic theme song had several variations, from the original which featured Rae singing, to the classic version, to a very ‘80s rock-influenced later edition.

One of the things that's most interesting about this series, which makes it so different from today's sitcoms, is the rate at which attempts were made to create spin-offs (probably inspired by the show's own surprising origin as a first-season spin-off from Diff'rent Strokes.) Whether it's a second-season shot with Tootie's aunt and uncle (played by a pre-MacGyver Richard Dean Anderson), focusing on their mixed-race relationship, two attempts to make a show about a nearby military school (with John P. Navin Jr. [Cousin Dale from National Lampoon's Vacation]) or a potential show about Jo's tomboy cousin in the Bronx, the series seemed to be frequently sacrificing episodes in the hopes of spin-off. Two of the more interesting tries came at the very end of the show's run, with Natalie moving into the city with an eclectic gang of urban roommates, including Richard Grieco and David Spade (playing the same type he'd end up making a career out of,) and a reboot that would have seen Blair take over a bankrupt Eastland, with students played by very young Juliette Lewis, Mayim Bialik and Seth Green. These ideas probably wouldn't have worked as series, but they offered some interesting early looks at some big names.

The DVDs
Finally completing the series' run four years after the fifth season came out on DVD, "The Facts of Life: The Complete Series" is spread over 26 DVD, which are packed into five clear, standard-width keepcases, with dual-hubbed trays to hold the discs. The DVDs offer a templated anamorphic widescreen menu (with the appropriate cast picture for the season), holding options to play all the episodes, select shows or check out extras where available. There are no audio options, but closed captioning is available.

The Quality
As the show was shot on video in the ‘80s, the full-frame transfers sport that distinctly harsh look that manages to deliver both overwrought color and a soft image, with a relatively low level of fine detail, though the quality improves as the show moves ahead in time, with color getting a touch richer and the image getting sharper. The video has no obvious issues with compression artifacts or other concerns.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks on these episodes are the simple center-balanced presentations you'd expect from an ‘80s sitcom, with nothing obviously problematic (though some episodes are a touch quieter than others.) Other than that, the music and dialogue are clear and distortion-free. Shout! Factory had indicated that one song from the series couldn't be cleared, and the song is "Ease on Down the Road" from The Wiz, which Tootie sings a line from in the episode "The Graduate." As a result, they duped Fields scatting "Pomp and Circumstance" and removed a few lines of her dialogue. If you know the scene, it's awkward, but otherwise, it's not handled badly. The more obvious musical moments, like songs by Michael Damien, El Debarge, Charo, Stacie Q and even the background use of "Stand By Your Man" in "Truck Stop" are all intact.

The Extras
The extras for the seasons that have been previously released remain intact, starting with "Remembering The Facts of Life" (18:27), a collection of interviews with casting director Eve Brandstein and several of the original girls, minus Ringwald (who, along with some of the others who didn't participate [including second-season addition McKeon], is discussed.) There are some good bits of info here, including notes about the development of Blair, the reason why Tootie wore roller skates, Cohn's introduction to acting and the retooling that followed the first go-round, but hearing from the less-famous members of the cast is the most interesting aspect. There's more from the actresses in "After Facts" (3:30), which lets Fields, Whelchel, Cohn, Schacter and Becker talk about their careers and lives after their time on the series.

The other extra carried over from the original releases is "Know The Facts: Trivia Game" (from the fourth-season DVDs). The 15-question multiple-choice quiz isn't hard to ace if you watch the episodes, and when you answer the questions, you get an audio clip in response, with more about the answer, along with a grade at the end. It's a cute one-time-use feature.

Available as part of the Season Four DVDs, The Facts of Life Goes to Paris, a 94-minute 1982 TV movie that aired before the show's fourth season, takes the core four and Mrs. Garrett to France, where the girls attend a strict exchange school and Mrs. G enters a cooking school run by a brutal chef who has no time for women. As serious as the series could get, this film abandons comedy even harder, focusing more on romance and self-discovery, as Jo falls for a local, Blair learns to love herself and Natalie and Tootie meet an American author in stereotypical Parisian exile. Laughs are few and far between in what's essentially a travelogue mixed with a coming-of-age tale.

The new material (found on the set's final disc) kicks off with the back-door pilot for the series, "The Girls School," from the first season of Diff'rent Strokes (24:01). In the episode, the Drummonds' housekeeper Mrs. G steps in to help at Kimberly's private school, allowing viewers to meet several of her fellow students, many of whom would return in The Facts of Life. For fans who never saw this episode, it's a good opportunity to see how it all started.

As much as their Paris adventure differs in tone from the show, it doesn't hold a candle to 1987's The Facts of Life Down Under in that regard. The girls, now all graduated from Eastland, visit their sister school in Australia, with Beverly Ann and Andy in tow. Though there are romantic elements to this film as well, with Tootie becoming interested in a guy she thinks is an aborigine (played by Mario Van Peebles), Natalie spending time with an outback beau and Beverly Ann visiting a former flame, but the real story is Jo and Blair getting mixed-up in a big jewel heist, which adds a crime thriller flavor to the film (why Andy is even here, with his cockamamie C-plot about learning sheepherding, is unknown.) Often, it feels like this movie is just an excuse to air 100 minutes of Australian slang.

Unfortunately, Shout! Factory couldn't get the rights to the 2001 reunion film (making this set a little less "complete".) On the plus side, you do get to hear from the core four and Rae in a 44:15 Paley Center panel from 2014 (though Fields appears only via a taped video message), while Jewell makes a special appearance, and an aged (but still somewhat spry) Edna Garrett curses, so that's an experience. The moderator, Entertainment Weekly's Danielle Nussbaum, is mainly digging for gossip, but you do get to hear from everyone about their experiences on the show, with Whelchel coming off as notably fun (even if it's obvious she has some stock answers, which are repeated from the other featurettes.)

Also included in the set s a 24-page booklet with disc breakdowns, episode descriptions and lots of stills from the show.

The Bottom Line
Like so many shows from the ‘80s your now-adult reviewer has re-visited on DVD, The Facts of Life is nothing like the fuzzy memories of the past--less a fun sitcom from a silly era and more a series of short plays exploring the trials and tribulations of a group of young women growing up in an age of excess. Though the show can frequently be incredibly cheesy and melodramatic, it's also a fascinating study of sitcom history, evolution and tropes, with its near-constant changes (as well as the frequent before-they-were-stars and before-they-weren't-stars appearances). If you have good memories of the show, it's fun to revisit and compare nostalgia with reality, and the quality and bonus materials make it worth checking out as well, but keep your expectations in check.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

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*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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