You take the
good, you take the bad

You take the
            good, you take the bad

The Facts of Life is finally available on
DVD—sort of. Sony Home Entertainment has
released the first two seasons of this iconic chick-com
(29 episodes, from 1979 to 1981), revealing the troubled
birth of this enduring classic in all its harshly lit,
cringingly scripted glory. Most fans remember that the
show began as a Diff’rent Strokes spin-off,
and so Gary Coleman (freakishly cute with dead-on timing),
Todd Bridges, and the late Dana Plato trudge
pointlessly in and out of the pilot—they forced
Gary to come back for the season 2 premiere as
well—as the Drummonds’ daffy
warm-hearted maid, Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae), takes a
job as a housemother at Eastland, an exclusive upstate
private girls school that Kimberly (Plato) supposedly
attended despite her ubiquitous presence at the
Strokes Manhattan penthouse.

Both shows were
produced by Norman Lear’s socially conscious Tandem
Productions, but season 1 might as well be another series
entirely. The first season sets new records in
earnest, laugh-lite situation comedy. Every frigging
episode deals with some life-changing crucial issue, so
the series understandably feels like an Afterschool
Special
marathon: There are way too many
characters for the writers to serve, making it almost
impossible for them to concentrate on jokes. Everyone
remembers Molly Ringwald as one of Mrs. Garrett’s
charges. Luckily for her, not many remember her
horrible suspender-centric outfits, bad
precocious-child-star line readings, and—most
hilariously—the mushroom haircut later co-opted
by Tootie (Kim Fields, the only actor besides Rae who
has a clue).

The pilot is
actually fairly astounding, and astoundingly offensive:
Tomboy athlete Cindy is taunted by her classmates for
“touching and hugging other girls” too
much and generally being a little dyke. Despite her
resemblance to a pigtailed Ricky Schroeder, Cindy decries
these cruel aspersions and ends up in a dress, going
to the dance just as feminine as you please. The
lesbian-in-training character was too juicy to pass up,
but since no one had heard of lipstick lesbians in 1980, the
show was forced to can Cindy (and Molly and Nancy and
Sue Ann—whose extensive collection of hot pants
will delight Roman Polanski if Sony releases these
episodes in France) in favor of Nancy McKeon as scrappy
scholarship urchin Jo, a Polish chick with more
testosterone than Chachi and the comedic chops to
handle the ham-fisted Bronx dialogue provided by a new
writing staff of borscht belt hacks.

Oddly enough,
megabutch Jo is portrayed as fairly boy-crazy in the first
half of the infinitely more satisfying season 2. Her desire
to pick up men at the local honky-tonk is the
premise-making MacGuffin in the two-part season
opener. Jo dares Blair to accompany her with fake IDs to
the Chug-a-Lug Bar in the “borrowed” Eastland
van, with Tootie and Natalie along to spy on the
cock-teasing antics through the bar’s window.
Naturally, the tough Tootsie and her snotty blond pal strike
out and get busted by an undercover cop and a
shrieking Mrs. G. The gals face expulsion unless they
agree to a perverse punishment: Rooming together above
the school cafeteria and working off the damages to the van
by slaving away in food service. And so a series is
born, although exactly how one van could sustain
enough damage to warrant seven seasons of slave labor
is never explained.

Season 2 sees the
show settling in to its enduring formula of gritty,
issue-oriented life lessons, including teen marriage, racial
identity—will Tootie reject her white dance partner,
repulsive discoing nerd David Coburn?—date
rape, and disability, with Geri Jewell’s debut as
Blair’s cerebral palsy–afflicted comedienne
cousin, all written by 60-ish old guys who probably
considered Charlotte Rae a hot tomato.

But
Advocate readers can enjoy situation comedy’s
longest lesbian romance: Tough chick Jo and prissy,
drag-queeny Blair. Nancy McKeon is still so freaked
out by her bravura butchness on Facts that she
refuses to discuss the show and won’t appear in
reunion movies or E! True Hollywood Stories.
Lisa Whelchel—now a scary suburban Jesus-freak
mom whose campy, hilariously severe child-discipline book
Creative Correction is basically Spanking for
Dummies
—lacks the irony to realize her
position in lesbian pop cultural history and blithely
appears in the too-brief Special Feature retrospectives
included on the DVD. She really does have reason to
celebrate; Lisa actually looks fabulous in season 1
(season 2 began her swift decline into Miss
Piggy–dom.)

It’s great
fun to read a covert relationship between Blair and Jo, and
the show always stuns you with a line here and a weird look
there, making you think Norman Lear intended this all
along and was sitting in his office pulling the puppet
strings as part of some crazy subversive pro-lesbian
agenda.

What we really
need is seasons 3 and 4 released, pronto. The show hit its
stride in 1981–1983, with classic episode after
classic episode, including Tootie nearly lured into a
teen prostitution ring and the infamous “cousin
Geri bangs the French teacher” one. Not to mention
the sapphic two-parter guest-starring Eve Plumb as
Blair’s stepsister, a shrill self-righteous nun
who almost steals Jo away for a lifelong pajama party
at the Peekskill Convent. The more copies of The Facts of
Life—The Complete First & Second Seasons

you purchase, the quicker they’ll release these
episodes. So hop to it, ladies!

Tags: World, World

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