Judge Brett Cullum now has the distinguished footnote to his reviewing career of being the first DVD Verdict Judge to write an entire review while wearing rollerskates.
Our reviews of The Facts Of Life: The Complete Third Season (published November 8th, 2006), The Facts Of Life: The Complete Fourth Season (published May 11th, 2010), and The Facts Of Life: The Complete Fifth Season (published November 4th, 2010) are also available.
"When the world never seems
From 1979 until 1988 The Facts of Life chronicled the lives of girls from a private boarding school named Eastland. The first season was a spin-off of Diffe'rent Strokes featuring Charlotte Ray (Mrs. Garrett), who left that series after only one season because of her housekeeper character's popularity. Little known bit of trivia: Kimberly Drummond (Dana Plato) was going to go with her as a student enrolled at the school. That concept was abandoned after the pilot was shot, but Mrs. Garrett remained the housemother of a girl's dormitory for a full season. Then the changes came along again. The theme song was rerecorded without Charlotte Rae's vocals, and four of the seven lead girls were expelled from the show as leads. The second season saw the show shift to a tighter cast, and a location change to the school's cafeteria with Mrs. Garrett as the dietitian. Sony lets you see all the changes firsthand in their set The Facts of Life: The Complete First and Second Seasons, at least two years of them. This collection has no George Clooney or Charlotte Rae's replacement Cloris Leachman; you'll have to wait eight seasons for that all to transpire. So how kind has time been to the longest-running television series with an all-female cast of leads?
Facts of the Case
The show started off with Mrs. Garrett (Rae) temporarily assigned as the housemother of a girl's dormitory at a private school. Her charges were numerous, including a young Molly Ringwald (Sixteen Candles) joined by six other girls on the 1979 season. The headmaster was Steven Bradley (John Lawlor, S.O.B.), and the head teacher was Miss Emily Mahoney (Jenny O'Hara, Matchstick Men). The cast was certainly crowded, but the usual suspects are here including Natalie (Mindy Cohn), Tootie (Kim Fields), and Blair (Lisa Welchel). Of course, there were plenty of other girls around them, and the series feels heavy with multiple personalities coming in and out of each story.
The second season begins with the introduction of Jo (Nancy McKeon) and a new living arrangement for the core group of girls. Due to a wild night when Jo arrives, all the girls are arrested and end up wrecking the cafeteria van. As part of their probation, the girls have to live with and work for Mrs. Garrett, who has been promoted to Eastland's dietitian. So now the show can center exclusively on Mrs. Garrett the mother figure, Tootie the young African American, Natalie the heavier funny one, Blair the rich beauty, and Joe the tomboy who likes motorcycles. Mrs. Garrett been charged to make sure the girls stay on the right path, and the gang will give her plenty of problems to sort through.
"You take the good…"
The best part of the series comes from the nostalgia The Facts of Life will produce for kids who grew up in the '80s. I grew up watching these girls, and they were my window to the wild world of teens when I was a tot. Whenever Mrs. Garrett lectured the girls on how to be a good person and friend, I soaked it all up like a sponge. It didn't hurt that I always harbored an elementary school crush on Blair, and would watch slack jawed whenever she showed up on my screen. Yet somehow when I hit high school, my girlfriend drove a motorcycle. All those years pining for Blair, and I was destined to be with Jo. I related entire chunks of my adolescence to one of the "very special" episodes of The Facts of Life, as did most of my peers.
The Facts of Life: The Complete First and Second Seasons is a great collection of episodes thanks to the retooling of the series in the second year. Some fans will wonder why the cast and plot were so significantly changed from the first to the second season. The truth was the show was savaged by critics, and didn't exactly produce a wow in the ratings. Once the changes were made, the show took off, and did seem more focused. Yet some people pined for the first season since it was more rapid-fire with the jokes and a little less serious. You get the best of both worlds with this set—the overcrowded comedic first year with Tootie on skates, and the streamlined second year with heavier messages and deeper relationships. The contrast is interesting, and in syndication airings the first year is often missing in action. The twenty-nine episodes here include many of the best and most memorable shows. There's the confrontation between Blair and her mother at parent's weekend, Natalie trying to find her birth mother, Molly's attempted reconciliation of her parents, Jo's first appearance, Blair's handicapped cousin Geri, Tootie's gossiping gets out of control, and appearances from Mrs. Garrett's son as well as her ex-husband.
The cast always had a magical charisma that makes us believe in the friendships. Although most of the actors were young and inexperienced, their love for each other shows in every episode. It's interesting how Natalie and Tootie paired up, and Blair and Jo also seemed to become the best of friends. Mrs. Garrett as played by Charoltte Rae is warm and inviting, the kind of mother figure most kids dream about. You can't help but smile even when the acting or script falters, because the cast pulls anything off with a sweet, gentle nature that works even today.
There are two featurettes on the set, and the best one is "Remembering the Facts of Life," which assembles most of the main cast to reminisce about their year or years on the show. Featured are members of the original crew, as well as most of the core group that continued on the show. Only Charlotte Rae and Nancy McKeon are not featured from the leads, and there's also no Molly Ringwald from the first year. It's all done with a montage of clips and talking heads, but nice to see the girls are instantly recognizable even after 27 years have passed. The other concentrates on careers after the show, and only runs about three minutes. I'm not sure why it was split from the longer look back.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"You take the bad…"
The Facts of Life hasn't aged well. It's become an '80s fixture, and despite the school uniforms saving us from most of the hideous fashion trends it looks like a product of the Reagan era. It has a soft video visual presentation coupled with a tin sound that makes for a disappointing digital experience. It's not the transfer's fault; they've done a solid enough job preserving colors and keeping things clear. Still, technically the source tapes are limited by the technology.
The show was preachy to the point of being maudlin. Every episode tries to hammer home an important life lesson, and during a marathon viewing session for this review, I felt I was trapped in after-school special hell. All the hot topics about teens from the '80s are totally here: teen suicide, underage drinking, divorce, and drugs. It's hard to watch the show as an adult and remember how serpentine and crushing these problems were and see it all confronted and solved in a half-hour. All 29 episodes hide a special moral lesson aimed at teens, and it makes the show hard to swallow when you've learned The Facts of Life for yourself.
"You take the good, You take the bad
The Facts of Life: The Complete First and Second Seasons is 707 minutes of John Hughes teenage melodrama delivered in 29 episodes. You even get Hughes muse Molly Ringwald to top things off. If you grew up in the '80s, chances are you'll enjoy a return visit to the Eastland campus to visit with Blair, Tootie, Jo, Natalie, and Mrs. Garrett. Just don't expect The Facts of Life to seem as profound as it did when you were discovering what the facts were back in the day. I'm planning on watching through the episodes one more time, and then delivering the set to a person who will love it to pieces and learn something—my 14-year-old sister. When you boil it all down, the show was meant for the young and inexperienced, and apart from nostalgia, you've learned all the lessons the show imparts by now.
Guilty of being a show that will return you back to when you were learning The Facts of Life, and implant that inescapable theme song in your head again.
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