You may be tempted to beg Judge Patrick Naugle to spout his signature tagline, but don't—he'll storm right out of this review.
Our reviews of Diff'rent Strokes: The Complete Second Season (published February 22nd, 2006), Diff'rent Strokes: The Complete Third Season (published June 20th, 2012), and Diff'rent Strokes: The Complete Fourth Season (published November 1st, 2012) are also available.
"Whatchoo talkin' bout, Willis?"
A near classic from the decade of Pac-Man and Nancy Reagan, Diff'rent Strokes is the story about two poor black children from Harlem living with a rich white widower in a Park Avenue penthouse apartment. Before Philip Drummond's (Conrad Bain) housekeeper passes away, he promises to take care of her two boys, Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis Jackson (Todd Bridges). The two boys come to live with Mr. Drummond (or, "Mr. D" as they often call him), his teenage daughter (the late Dana Plato), and their incorrigible housekeeper, the wacky Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae). At first the mixture of upper class WASPS and lower-class African Americans doesn't mix well…until, that is, Arnold woos everyone with his adorable cheeks and humorous one-liners. Suddenly Arnold, Willis, and everyone in the Drummonds' household discovers life lesions on everything from fighting the school bully to stealing your sister's make-up case. In the end, the most important lesson is clear: you don't have to have the same skin color to be a family filled with love and tolerance.
Included on this three-disc set are the following episodes:
• Movin' In
In a way, Diff'rent Strokes is review proof—it will appeal (most likely) to only one true demographic: those who grew up during the early 1980s (even though this first season aired in '78…but never mind). Those who didn't watch the show when it was first broadcast may be slightly baffled as to why anyone would sit through an entire episode. By today's standards, that jokes are corny, the performances self-serving, and the morals about as obvious as the nose on your face. One look at the show's theme (black kids + rich white guy = hilarity!) would make even the most sugar-coated citizen retch cookies and ice cream.
And yet there are those of us who remember the show fondly, not because it was well acted or intricately constructed—no, this is a show that stands up on nostalgic sentiment alone. I was able to watch the entire first season of Diff'rent Strokes in a week without getting the least bit tired of it. The sole reason: it was like taking a trip down memory lane. I realized as I watched these episodes that Mr. Drummond reminded me of my father, and Kimberly was the spitting image of my sister. It was like a family reunion via the great gods of TV land!
Diff'rent Strokes rode solely on the shoulders of Gary Coleman's indomitable cuteness. Though the Diff'rent Strokes children are now the butt of numerous jokes and put-downs (and, sadly, Dana Plato's life came to a tragic end a few years back), it's hard to deny that these tykes were some of the fuzziest, funniest kids to ever pop up on the boob tube (especially considering today's smarmy tykes and teens that dominate the TV landscape).
Coleman's professional delivery of his patented "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" zinger and other one-liners sold the show like no other. Though Willis and Kimberly did their best to garner laughs, Coleman's shadow always loomed far above them (ironic, considering he never grew taller than five feet). Conrad Bain as Mr. Drummond had the thankless job of often providing the kids with sage advice ("Arnold, you should never put electrical wires on your brother's genitals, and let me tell you why"), while Charlotte Rae mugged for all she was worth as the lovable, motherly Mrs. Garrett (each eye roll made her $1,000 richer by my meager calculations).
Diff'rent Strokes gave America something to think about, if only in the most marginal of ways. The show championed the idea of races living together in harmony, and family having no color boundaries when it came to love. Somehow the show sneaked its way into our hearts, and has since become a staple in the rerun schedule and has made Arnold's catchphrase a national treasure (my favorite T-shirt slogan: "I'm what Willis was talkin' 'bout!"). This first season of Diff'rent Strokes is a take-it-or-leave-it deal—if you remember the show, watching this set is a real gas. Those who don't smile at Arnold's witty retorts have hearts of true solid granite.
As a bonus, the final episode gives us a glimpse into the prep school that Mrs. Garrett would take over in the spin-off The Facts of Life. And be honest: isn't that worth your hard earned moolah?
Each episode of Diff'rent Strokes is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 full frame. I can't say I was all that impressed with these transfers. Then again, what do you expect from a show taped on video that's now over (gasp!) 25 years old? The colors often look muddled and dark while the blacks aren't half as sharp as one might hope. The good news is that Diff'rent Strokes looks exactly the way you remember it from when you were a kid—mediocre. Then again, would you really want it any other way?
The soundtracks are presented in what appear to be Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono. Much like the video presentations, these sound mixes leave much to be desired. The canned audience laughter often overpowers the rest of the sound mix, though the dialogue, music (oh, that Alan Thicke-penned theme song…such ecstasy!), and sound effects are all well heard. Alas, there are no subtitles or alternate soundtracks available on any of the three DVDs in this set.
A few extras have been included on this set, which is more than most TV sets. The best is a nearly half-hour long featurette titled "A Look Back At Diff'rent Strokes," which includes interviews with writer Fred Rubin, actor Conrad Bain, Charlotte Rae, Todd Bridges, and others. The featurette is a nice peek into the show's history, though the exclusion of Gary Coleman (who must have declined any participation) is a real disappointment. This is somewhat rectified by the "Whatchoo Talkin' Bout?" featurette that focuses through interviews and clips on Coleman's apparent genius (everyone thinks he was a comic god during the show's production). Also included are some humorous and insightful commentaries on various episodes by writer Fred Rubin.
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Scales of Justice
• "A Look Back at Diff'rent Strokes" Featurette
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