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good, you take the bad

You take the
good, you take the bad

Factsoflife

The release of the first two seasons of The Facts of Life on DVD remind us that before the show was good-bad it was mostly just bad-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!

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Christian McLaughlin